Figures released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that the average British person drinks double the recommended 14 units of alcohol per week. Whilst there is growing awareness that societal, economic and environmental factors increase alcohol consumption, there are still few government measures in place to tackle these issues. In particular, BBC Panorama has recently highlighted failures in the current system of non-statutory alcohol regulation*, accusing regulators of failing to apply higher prices to products and educate consumers about risks by correctly displaying health information on labels. However, there is another important area of regulation which remains unaddressed, namely the lack of restrictions on alcohol marketing.
The effectiveness of alcohol marketing is highlighted by the millions thought to be invested into this practice yearly. However, the industry has argued that marketing is concerned with promoting particular products – encouraging purchase of one brand over another – rather than encouraging increases in overall consumption. This perspective is challenged by healthcare professionals, with the WHO, British Medical Association and Alcohol Health Alliance UK recommending stricter controls; ideally a complete advertising ban. However, there is relatively little consideration in research or policy of the channels through which alcohol marketing can increase consumption. Behavioural economics can provide important insights to inform the case for marketing restrictions and promote transparency by improving public consciousness of how marketing may impact decision-making. Two factors are particularly noteworthy – firstly how we relate to people in marketing and, secondly, the impact of “default” measures.
A key principle of behavioural economics is that the actions of those around us or “social norms” powerfully influence our behaviours. However, we rarely know what everyone else is doing. Through a mental shortcut, which Amon Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann termed the “availability heuristic”, prevalence of behaviours is based on how easily they come to mind. The more frequently a behaviour is seen, and the more salient – i.e. distinctive and noticeable – it is, the more available it is to us. The Behavioural Insights Team highlight that this can cause us to overestimate how much others drink because we process the loud, regular drinking behaviours of a few as evidence of more widespread drinking. The alcohol industry can also encourage drinking to be perceived as a social norm by simply increasing the number of times this behaviour is observed, particularly if done in a salient way. This is achieved through advertisements and product placement, which provide abundant, eye-catching examples of people drinking through television, social media and in the physical environment around us. Whilst our perception of drinking as a social norm is also strengthened through other avenues, marketing is arguably one of the most constant forces perpetuating the norm because of its salience and prevalence in the environment.
Another common tactic is the use of celebrities. This may encourage drinking because emotions can dictate or inform our actions in a mechanism referred to as “affect”. Positive emotions towards a celebrity, such as trust, could be transferred onto a product or brand. Use of sporting figures also has the potential to minimise negative feelings about alcohol due to associations between sports and health.
Marketing may also encourage consumption of larger measures. We tend to favour the “default” option – either the alternative which requires no action or the path of least resistance. One reason for this, aside from ease, is thought to be that defaults are often viewed as endorsements. Therefore, displaying a particular measure in marketing could be perceived as a recommendation as to how the product is best consumed. It is common to see beer in particular displayed in the largest measure available – a pint – on advertising, menus and other forms of marketing.
Current marketing codes do not properly deal with any of these issues. Whilst brands must refrain from implying that alcohol is key to social events or enhances popularity, drinking may be portrayed as sociable and there are no constraints on the use of people. There are also no restrictions as to what size measures are displayed. There are already calls for an updated government alcohol strategy, and incorporation of behaviourally informed marketing regulations – such as limiting the use of people and requiring display of smaller measures – should be seriously considered. Whilst addressing the high levels of consumption will require a multifaceted approach, these restrictions have the potential to reduce environmental cues which encourage consumers to be drawn towards larger measures and drinking to be viewed as positive and prevalent.
*Regulation of alcohol marketing is managed by industry bodies ASA and the Portman Group and government body Ofcom.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.