Alcohol marketing

Millions of people suffer every day as a result of alcohol – that’s why it is so important that we have evidence-based policies in place to make sure it is marketed effectively.

Alcohol companies market their products in order to increase sales, whether through reaching more customers or getting existing customers to purchase more. Research has found that alcohol companies are often reliant on heavy drinkers for their profits and will target their advertising towards younger drinkers to encourage them to become the “heavy-using loyalists of tomorrow”. [1]

Why it matters

If alcohol marketing results in more alcohol being consumed by a population, the harms associated with alcohol will rise. Harms are not only to the drinkers’ health and harm caused to others around the drinkers, such as people exposed to violence and accidents.

As well as encouraging sales, marketing also has the effect of normalising drinking, and associating alcohol in people’s minds with desirable or pleasant experiences.

Alcohol is marketed not just through TV, cinema, and billboard ads, but also through product placement in TV shows, sponsorship of sports events, merchandise, placement within supermarkets, on social media, and even on the packaging itself. All of these various elements of the marketing mix support and depend on each other. [2]

For example, when Heineken linked up with the James Bond film franchise, the deal included images of 007 on Heineken bottles and boxes, product placement in the films, television commercials, access for fans to unseen movie content, and even a selfie taken from space for people to share via social media.

When those who are vulnerable, such as children and people in recovery, are exposed to marketing, it can also increase harm. Research has found that exposure to alcohol advertising is linked to children drinking from an earlier age and in a riskier way. [3] 82% of young people in one research study recalled seeing at least one form of alcohol marketing in the past month. [4] Research with young adult drinkers in Scotland found that participants were sceptical of alcohol companies’ motivation to warn customers about the dangers of alcohol – especially taking issue with the phrase ‘drink responsibly’ as being “vague” [5] and a way to displace responsibility for alcohol harms away from the alcohol company.

Social media marketing is particularly unregulated, because it is so new. This means it is a space where alcohol companies can take the opportunity to target advertising towards particular audiences. In a survey of 11-19 year olds in England, 13% had engaged with alcohol marketing on social media. The more they had engaged, the riskier their drinking behaviours were. [6]

The content of marketing can also be harmful. Adverts which link alcohol with risk-taking or social success or which encourage excessive consumption could increase drinker’s likelihood of causing themselves or others harm.

How regulation works

Alcohol should be marketed responsibly and only to adult drinkers. Marketing of alcohol, like the marketing of other products, can be regulated. Rules can restrict both the content of marketing ads and materials, and where and when the marketing can be displayed.

Who does the regulating is important too. In the UK we have a co- and self-regulatory system, where alcohol companies have a degree of control over how the industry is regulated. In other countries the government is the regulator. In France, the government’s ‘Loi Evin’, introduced in 1991, comprehensively restricts the content and placement of alcohol marketing. It includes a ban on television and cinema adverts, a ban on cultural events sponsorship, and limits the content to factual information only. [7] However, even with this law, there are ways for the alcohol industry to circumvent the rules through ‘alibi marketing’. This is where indirect references to brands through the use of colours, fonts and slogans are used – most noticeably seen sports sponsorship. A study of the 2016 UEFA tournament found that 123 instances of alcohol marketing on average in each match broadcast, with 91% of these being alibi marketing. [8]

Here in the UK, the three main regulatory organisations are:

  • the Advertising Standards Authority, which is funded by the advertising industry [9] and oversees alcohol advertising
  • Ofcom, which oversees sponsorship of TV shows
  • the Portman Group, which is funded by the alcohol industry [10] and oversees alcohol packaging and labelling

The end result is that no single regulator sees the complete picture. This also means that the industry are regulating themselves, which is seen by many as ineffective. [11]

Most of the rules on broadcast advertising have struggled to keep pace with changes in the digital age. Regulation lags far behind advances in marketing techniques in both scope and purpose and the activities of current regulators often lack transparency. An examination of the Portman Group’s rulings on alcohol advertising complaints from 2006-17 found that decision-making has not been consistent and that decisions often appeared subjective. [12]

Possible policy solutions

Restrictions and regulations on marketing can reduce impulse purchasing or over-purchasing, [13] as well as protecting those who are vulnerable to harm, such as children and people in recovery. For example, alcohol companies will ask supermarkets to stack beers “away from the beer fixture to drive impulse purchase”. [14]

Regulations to restrict marketing can include:

  • Alcohol only being placed in one section of a shop or supermarket
  • A ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports and cultural events
  • Alcohol only being advertised in cinemas where the film has an 18 rating
  • Restrictions on physical ads being placed within a certain radius of schools
  • A watershed on alcohol advertising to protect children from seeing alcohol ads on TV
  • Restrictions on social media advertising so alcohol is only promoted to adult users
  • Rules on the content of marketing materials to prohibit links with social and sexual success, encouragement of over-consumption, or using gendered stereotypes

Currently, the only one of these which is in place in England and Wales are the rules on the content of marketing materials. In Scotland there has been more progress, with licensing legislation requiring alcohol to be only placed in one section of a shop or supermarket. Some local authorities have taken local action to ban advertising in public spaces such as bus shelters. [15] However, the self-regulatory system means that restrictions on advertising content are not actively monitored by the large regulatory organisations. Issues are only retrospectively addressed if and when an advert or label is reported to the regulator, by which time it may not be in circulation anymore.


February 2016: Proposal to ban billboard advertisements for alcohol near schools rejected by Scottish Parliament

March 2019: Government consulted on introducing online advertising restrictions for products high in fat, salt and sugar, however alcohol was excluded from this

July 2021: Health and Care Bill introduced in Parliament. Includes restrictions on advertising junk food before the 9pm watershed. Alcohol should also be included in this restriction.

Our policy asks

We are calling for a thorough overhaul of the way alcohol marketing is regulated – so that alcohol producers and sellers are clear about how they can and can’t promote their products, and consumers know when they can expect the regulators to step in.

In order to be effective, and reflect the reality of 21st century marketing, regulation should:

  • Be wholly independent of the alcohol, hospitality and retail industries: these industries face an inevitable conflict of interest between their need to increase profits and expand into new markets, and society’s need to reduce alcohol harm. For that reason, regulation should be entirely independent of commercial interests and supported with full legal powers.
  • Be transparent and accountable: when decisions are made about whether to allow or prevent a particular product or marketing campaign, those decisions need to be transparent and be clearly explained to producers and consumers. The regulators need to be open to proper public scrutiny and challenge.
  • Be evidence-based: without a solid evidence base for their work, it is impossible for regulators to be fair to consumers or producers. There is an enormous body of research evidence on the potential effects on alcohol marketing, which should inform the decisions that are made.
  • Be focussed on reducing alcohol harm: current regulatory codes focus on ensuring that alcohol is marketed 'responsibly', without saying exactly what this means. Without a clear definition, there is a risk that promoting 'responsible' alcohol marketing simply becomes a means to avoid reputational damage to alcohol companies. The codes need to be refocused to concentrate on the areas where there is a good body of evidence that action could be taken to reduce alcohol-related harm.
  • Consider alcohol marketing in the round: drinks producers don’t see packaging, advertising and sponsorship as separate entities, but currently that’s exactly what the regulators do. We need a regulatory system that considers the whole ‘marketing mix’.


[1] Maani Hessari, Nason, Adam Bertscher, Nathan Critchlow, Niamh Fitzgerald, Cécile Knai, Martine Stead, and Mark Petticrew. (2019). Recruiting the “Heavy-Using Loyalists of Tomorrow”: An Analysis of the Aims, Effects and Mechanisms of Alcohol Advertising, Based on Advertising Industry Evaluations. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16, no. 21: 4092.;

[2] Alcohol Focus Scotland, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, Balance North East, and Our Life (2011). The Four Steps to Alcohol Misuse: How the industry uses price, place, promotion and product design to persuade us that too much alcohol is not enough.

[3] Jernigan, D., Noel, J., Landon, J., Thornton, N. and Lobstein, T. (2016) Alcohol marketing and youth alcohol consumption: a systematic review of longitudinal studies published since 2008. Addiction, 112 (Suppl. 1), 7-20.

[4] Critchlow N, MacKintosh AM, Thomas C, et al. (2019) Awareness of alcohol marketing, ownership of alcohol branded merchandise, and the association with alcohol consumption, higher-risk drinking, and drinking susceptibility in adolescents and young adults: a cross-sectional survey in the UK. BMJ Open 2019;9:e025297.

[5] Jones, D., et al. (2021). Health information, messaging and warnings on alcohol packaging: a focus group study with young adult drinkers in Scotland. Addiction Research & Theory.

[6] Nathan Critchlow, Anne Marie MacKintosh, Lucie Hooper, Christopher Thomas & Jyotsna Vohra (2019). Participation with alcohol marketing and user-created promotion on social media, and the association with higher-risk alcohol consumption and brand identification among adolescents in the UK. Addiction Research & Theory, 27:6, 515-526, DOI: 10.1080/16066359.2019.1567715

[7] Movendi International (2020). France: Alcohol advertising ban wins case in High-Court.

[8] Purves, R., Critchlow, N., Stead, M., Adams, J. and Brown, K., 2017. Alcohol Marketing during the UEFA EURO 2016 Football Tournament: A Frequency Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(7), p.704.

[9] Advertising Standards Authority. 2018. What we spend and how we spend it.

[10] Portman Group (2021). Portman Group website.

[11] Hastings, Gerard (2009). “They'll drink bucket loads of the stuff”: an analysis of internal alcohol industry advertising documents. The Alcohol Education and Research Council.

[12] Alcohol Change UK (2018) Fit for Purpose? An analysis of the role of the Portman Group in alcohol industry self-regulation.

[13] Nakamura, R., Pechey, R., Suhrcke, M., Jebb, S. A., & Marteau, T. M. (2014). Sales impact of displaying alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in end-of-aisle locations: an observational study. Social science & medicine (1982), 108(100), 68–73.;

[14] Alcohol Focus Scotland, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, Balance North East, and Our Life (2011). The Four Steps to Alcohol Misuse: How the industry uses price, place, promotion and product design to persuade us that too much alcohol is not enough.

[15] Adfree Cities (2021). Bristol City Council takes first step in tackling toxic ads.

Alcohol Change UK (2020). All over the shop: how supermarkets utilise store layout to sell us more alcohol.

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