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Alcohol marketing, football, and self-regulation

By Jean Adams

When we work at home, my partner and I share a workspace (or kitchen table as it is also known). This is generally friendly and allows for moments of mutually constructive musing and problem-solving. A recent exchange went like this:

Me: “Who is Everton’s shirt sponsor again?”
Him: “Emmm…is it Chang with the elephants?”
Me: “Yeah, right, thanks.”


Him: “Sorry, what are you doing? I thought you were working?”
Me: “I’m doing my talk on alcohol marketing in sport.”
Him: “What’s Everton’s shirt sponsor got to do with that?”
Me: “Well…duh…Everton’s a football team and Chang’s a beer.”
Him: “Chang’s a beer? That’s outrageous! What are they doing on Everton’s shirts?” (he’s a public health researcher too)

Everton player Louis Saha sports a Chang branded training top

My partner is a not a football fanatic, but he knows a bit about football. Certainly enough to be able to easily remember Everton’s shirt sponsor; and Everton is not his team. Chang is definitely not his beer. So the only place he must know the brand from is Everton’s shirts.

When we set out to quantify the volume of alcohol marketing in televised English football, I knew there would be some, but I was caught off guard by quite how much there was. We found an average of almost two visual references to alcohol per minute of broadcast. But what was much more interesting was how embedded these references were. Less than 1% of the broadcasts were devoted to formal alcohol advertising during commercial breaks. Instead, almost all of the alcohol marketing we found was on or alongside the football pitch, or part of the graphics added by broadcasters. It was simple logos, frequently repeated.

We know that alcohol marketing affects children, in particular. When children are exposed to alcohol marketing, those who do not yet drink are more likely to start drinking, and those who already drink are more likely to drink more. Children are also very aware of alcohol marketing. More than three-quarters of Scottish 12-14 year olds are aware of some sort of alcohol marketing, and two-thirds of them are aware of alcohol marketing in sport.

In the UK, alcohol marketing is governed by an industry sponsored self-regulatory code of conduct. When commercial industry is charged with regulating its own marketing, the potential for conflict of interest is obvious. In the sphere of food marketing to children, there seems to be numerous examples of industry involvement in regulation leading to watering down of who and what is covered by the regulations. Indeed, in the USA, industry backlash led to the White House abandoning efforts to even introduce standardised self-regulation. There is now clear evidence that the UK alcohol industry is breaking its own code of conduct by making specific efforts to target products at under-age drinkers.

In addition to the inherent problems of self-regulation of marketing and the growing failure of such self-regulation, the frequency and nature of alcohol marketing we found in televised football highlights a mismatch between what the code of conduct is designed to restrict and what is actually shown. The alcohol marketing we found in English football was almost entirely frequently repeated exposure to simple branding and logos. In contrast, the code of conduct focuses on what alcohol should not be associated with.

According to the code, alcohol marketing should not “in any direct or indirect way…suggest any association with bravado, or with violent, aggressive, dangerous or anti-social behaviours…illicit drugs…sexual activity or sexual success…[or] that consumption of the drink can lead to social success or popularity”.

The impact of marketing is related to both exposure and power. Power refers to the creative content of marketing — how memorable a single exposure is and how well it appeals to particular individuals. Power can be difficult to quantify, but is why Don Draper gets paid so well. Exposure is simply about how often you see the marketing. There is no simple formula linking impact, exposure and marketing. But clearly if you can’t have one, you would be well advised to go all out for the other.

The UK’s alcohol marketing code of conduct seems to focus entirely on marketing power. It restricts the creative content of the sort of narrative advertisements shown in the commercial breaks between programming. It has absolutely no impact on exposure.

It is difficult to say if restrictions on alcohol marketing power triggered increases in exposure, or if industry lobbied for restrictions on power rather than exposure because they know something about the relative influence of each on impact. Or perhaps there is no simple either:or. But what we are left with is a code of conduct that appears to have little bearing to the nature of the huge volume of alcohol marketing seen in televised football (and, I would wager, elsewhere).

Stronger restrictions on alcohol marketing in sport, and elsewhere, are never going to be a magic bullet that will solve the problem the UK currently seems to have with alcohol. But as part of a suite of approaches limiting advertising, affordability, and accessibility it would make an important contribution.

Jean Adams is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University, UK. She edits the Fuse Open Science Blog and can be found on Twitter at @jeanmadams. She is one of the authors of the paper ‘Alcohol Marketing in Televised English Professional Football: A Frequency Analysis’, published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.

Alcohol and Alcoholism publishes papers on biomedical, psychological and sociological aspects of alcoholism and alcohol research, provided that they make a new and significant contribution to knowledge in the field. Papers include new results obtained experimentally, descriptions of new experimental (including clinical) methods of importance to the field of alcohol research and treatment, or new interpretations of existing results. Theoretical contributions are considered equally with papers dealing with experimental work provided that such theoretical contribution are not of a largely speculative or philosophical nature. Alcohol and Alcoholism is the official journal of the Medical Council on Alcohol.

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Image credit: Louis Saha, Everton. By nicksarebi [CC-BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.

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