Another classic propaganda study was just released in Britain, using the all-too-common meme of “think of the children” as the wedge to attack alcohol advertising. Ever since Prohibition ended miserably here in the U.S., anti-alcohol groups turned their attention to other methods of crippling alcohol, and attacking advertising has been a favorite strategy. It’s quite common in the UK, too, as similar groups there have no doubt witnessed its effectiveness on our side of the pond. This one is being reported by the Daily Mirror as More Children Familiar with Alcohol Brands Than Snacks, which is no doubt exactly the alarm that the anti-alcohol organization behind it was hoping to raise. The so-called “study” the Mirror is reporting on was conducted for Alcohol Concern, a “national charity on alcohol misuse” which certainly sounds like one of our American organizations that cover themselves in the cloak of health and concern for the children.
So let’s look at the study. 400 children, ages 10 and 11 (the same age as my son Porter), were shown brand names and images. Of those, 79% correctly recognized Carlsberg as a beer, or at least as alcohol. The same percentage also correctly identified Smirnoff as alcohol whereas only 74% recognized Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream (which must have greatly chagrined Ben & Jerry’s ad agency). Oh, the horror! From there, of course, the leap is made that tighter controls need to be placed on the advertising of alcoholic beverages lest the kiddies remain able to know what’s alcohol and what’s not. Because if children know which brands are alcohol, then obviously they will drink them. If then can identify them, then obviously they’re being targeted and all ads therefore “encourage immoderate consumption.” Alcohol Concern asserts that alcohol advertising must be “not attractive to children,” as if adults and children like completely different things.
Okay, a couple of things. First, being able to identify which brands are alcoholic drinks and which are not does not mean the recognition came from advertising. That almost 4 out of 5 kids could identify Carlsberg, one of the best-selling beers in the UK, is just as likely due to its popularity, being in those kids’ homes, sitting in the refrigerator, and seeing their parents drinking it. Or seeing it when they’re at the local football game, with family and family friends drinking it while watching the game; or at a picnic; or they may see it walking the supermarket aisles as their parents shop. There are many places where kids can see alcohol brands, including many positive experiences, that do not have to do with advertising. Kids do not have tunnel vision and only retain what they see in ads on television. Yet Mark Leyshon, from Alcohol Concern, insists their “study” does “provide more evidence that alcohol marketing messages are getting through to young people well before they are legally able to buy alcohol.” I’d say that’s true only if you ignore reality.
On some level, isn’t it good news that kids know the difference between alcohol and soda? And guess which one they prefer? Think about it. Do kids like bitter tastes like beer or sugary sweet flavors like soft drinks? Study after study I’ve seen, and not just ones by neo-prohibitionists, always show young people prefer sweet tastes over bitter ones. I know my kids do. Don’t yours? So it’s in their interest — and yours and society’s if the anti-alcohol nutjobs are to be believed — if they don’t accidentally reach for a bottle of Carlsberg thinking the green bottle contains Sprite or 7Up? Knowledge should be a good thing, but apparently Alcohol Concern thinks it would be better if our children were completely ignorant.
Second, the study itself seems overly simplistic at best. The kids were shown “the brand names and logos of common alcohol products, as well as images from TV alcohol advertisements,” along with “brand images, logos and TV adverts for popular non-alcoholic products such as soft drinks and breakfast cereals.” Then it was multiple choice. The kids could choose for each image they were shown between three choices: “food,” “soft drink” or “alcoholic drink.” I can’t speak for their ten and eleven year olds, but I’m fairly certain my own son (who’s 10-1/2) could do a pretty good job of just guessing between those three choices. Most successful brand images work because the association with the products are natural or complimentary, not inscrutable and hard to figure out.
But even so, would it have been better for children’s health if they could more easily identify the “soft drinks” or “sugary snacks,” which ultimately are at least as bad for their health as alcohol? I know that kids under 18 in civilized places (or 21 in places less so) should not be drinking alcohol, and I accept that children should not have unrestricted access to it. But the fact remains that, all things being equal, the excess sugar and other chemicals in soft drinks and many, many processed foods are terrible for everybody, children included. Yet Alcohol Concern — and indeed most anti-alcohol groups — seem to have no difficulty with the many unhealthy products in the world and are single-mindedly convinced that it’s alcohol alone that it is the cause of society’s woes.
For me personally, as a parent, I find this concern completely absurd, unfounded and misguided. My kids could name more alcohol brands than the average ten and seven-year old, because it’s “daddy’s work.” Their hearts sink every time a package arrives on our doorsep and it’s not a new book or toy, but instead is beer. Our house is full of beer. It’s lining the hallway, in boxes in the foyer, sitting around the dining room, the kitchen, the garage, and stuffed into four refrigerators. But my kids have no interest in it whatsoever. Zip, zero, nada. They know it’s “for adults.” And that’s partly why I’m convinced these sorts of attacks on alcohol advertising using children as a shield are not about the kids in the least. They never are. I’m glad my kids know the difference between what they’re allowed to drink and what they’re not. Don’t all parents teach their kids what they can drink? In our home, it’s simple, really. No soda, no beer and no alcohol. They know, and that knowledge is powerful and effective. Just say know.