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Forbidden fruit: are children tricked into wanting alcohol?

Over the years, we have become accustomed to alcohol companies and their allies seeking to convince us of their concern about alcohol problems and responsible use of alcohol. Their efforts range from desperately…

Portraying alcohol as ‘forbidden fruit’ makes it more attractive to young people. Chris Goldberg

Over the years, we have become accustomed to alcohol companies and their allies seeking to convince us of their concern about alcohol problems and responsible use of alcohol. Their efforts range from desperately inept advertisements to labels on some products that provide (in small print) advice that is less than compelling (e.g. “Is your drinking harming yourself or others? Get the facts –”), or admonitions such as “drink responsibly” in barely visible fonts.

A large hoarding for Miller beer (see below) recently placed approximately 800 metres from a large school in Perth alongside a subway through which many children pass every day, eschewed the small print in favour of a very visible message that the product is “18+” and “for people over the age of 18 only”.

Miller billboard advertisement at the corner of Nicholson Road and Railway Parade in Shenton Park, Western Australia. McCusker Centre, Curtin University

Miller beer has had an association of more than 30 years with the Philip Morris/Altria tobacco group, which currently owns approximately 27% of SAB Miller. The SAB Miller board includes four current or former Philip Morris/Altria leaders, including long-time chairman and CEO, Geoffrey Bible.

The tobacco industry has known for decades about the value of promoting smoking as an adult habit – as forbidden fruit for young people.

Tobacco industry documents show that presenting smoking as an “adult choice”, a “forbidden fruit” and an “act of rebellion” have been “common industry marketing themes”.

An Imperial Tobacco marketing research report from 1977 noted:

Of course, one of the very things that are attractive is [the] mere fact that cigarettes are forbidden fruit…when the adolescent is looking for something that at the same time makes them feel different and also makes them feel that they are old enough to ignore this weight of authority so as to feel that they have made their own choice, what better could be found than a cigarette? It is not just a smoke. It is a statement, a naughty adventure, a milestone episode.

The Philip Morris company even ran literal “forbidden fruit” messages in full page advertisements in news magazines aimed at parents. And there is also research showing that the perception of smoking as “forbidden fruit” significantly predicted smoking intentions. Indeed, the authors of a major study in this area recommend that education programs “should incorporate strategies/messages counteracting the FF perspectives…”.

We know that over the years tobacco companies used “smoking prevention” programs to head off further constraints, as well as to legitimise research on and access to young people. There is also good evidence that tobacco company educational programs brought no benefits, but were indeed likely to be counter-productive.

Once-confidential industry documents show that these programs were intended to serve the industry’s interests and political needs, not least by preventing more effective action. They were also for:

preserving the industry’s access to youths, creating allies within policymaking and regulatory bodies, defusing opposition from parents and educators, bolstering industry credibility, and preserving the industry’s influence with policymakers.

A recently published paper shows that industry “education” advertisements even appear to have a priming effect on smokers.

One might argue that the alcohol industry has derived similar benefits from the education programs it has supported over the years, notwithstanding the ringingly sincere position drafted for the Philip Morris CEO in an internal briefing book in 1996, when Philip Morris owned the Miller Brewing company:

it’s good business for the industry to promote responsible drinking. These promotions are not ploys. They are sincere comprehensive programs implemented by brewers and distributors.

This is some way from the conclusions of an American study that “the evidence indicates that beer companies achieved advantageous outcomes to a large extent with these ‘drink responsibly’ campaigns and the interpretations tended to be mostly prodrinking”. They add “seemingly prohealth messages can serve to subtly advance both industry sales and public relations interests” and “the appearance of addressing the problem may preempt more persuasive campaign efforts from government agencies and prevention organizations.”

Corona billboard at the corner of Nicholson Road and Railway Parade at Shenton Park, Western Australia. McCusker Centre, Curtin University

Alongside the Miller Beer advertisement, on the other side of the subway, was another, equally large advertisement for Corona beer (see above). No warnings, just glamorous young people drinking on a beach.

Isn’t it good to know that, as the Corona website assures us, “We at Corona work to model responsible drinking throughout our advertising and actions as a company” and that the Corona Grupo Modelo education program (of which this author has never seen any traces in Australia) claims to “spread the message of responsible drinking among students, authorities, teachers and parents through a variety of practices.”

Those accessing the Corona website are told, “You have to be old enough to enter this site”. Given that there are no further constraints or checks, a cynic might see this as something of a dare or encouragement to teens to enter an earlier birth date. More forbidden fruit.

Alcohol advertising is expensively and meticulously researched. Alcohol companies are not likely to receive plaudits from their shareholders for reducing their present or future markets. Indeed, in September 2012, the marketing director of SAB Miller’s Australian Carlton United Brewers was quoted as saying:

I think the first thing is we need to find ways to work harder to make people drink more and drink at higher value…

These billboard advertisements, like other alcohol ads in locations passed by children, come and go. Miller Beer is not alone in emphasising that alcohol products are for adults. Is it too cynical to suggest that advertisements such as this, from a company so closely associated with the tobacco industry, may be helping to portray alcohol as “forbidden fruit” to which children and young people might aspire?

It is hard to credit that anybody other than the alcohol industry and its supporters takes seriously the self-regulatory codes that are supposed to protect children from alcohol advertising. Hence the current increasing pressure for regulation.

Surely, it is also time to ensure that any warning messages, whether about health or directed to children and young people, are developed by our health authorities, rather than by alcohol industry organisations, and global companies whose purpose is to sell as much of their product as possible.

This is the final part of our series looking at alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Part One: A brief history of alcohol consumption in Australia

Part Two: Social acceptance of alcohol allows us to ignore its harms

Part Three: My drinking, your problem: alcohol hurts non-drinkers too

Part Four: Alcohol-fuelled violence on the rise despite falling consumption

Part Five: ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now’: alcohol advertising and sport

Part Six: Advertising’s role in how young people interact with alcohol

Part Seven: Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco – boozem buddies?

Part Eight: Explainer: foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Part Nine: ‘Valuable label real estate’ and alcohol warning labels

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Ken Taylor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    I've long suspected alcohol licensing laws have a forbidden fruit effect. It worked that way for me. Bars seemed like very exciting places when you weren't allowed to enter them.

    Alcohol is sold without licensing in many Asian countries and the "so what" nature of it seems more sensible to me than surrounding alcohol with mystique. Whenever restrictions on trading hours or alcohol availability are trialled there is reports the restrictions are effective at reducing alcohol related problems but I wonder if the restrictions increase problems beyond the area and parameters measured in the study.

    1. Mike Hansen


      In reply to Ken Taylor

      Road traffic trauma because of drunk drivers in some Asian countries is off the scale.

      Thailand is a drink-driving disaster area. This article covers their Songkran festival but gives the general idea. Sure - infrastructure plays a part but booze is the major factor.

      "Figures compiled last year for my piece on the Songkran death-by-drunk driving phenomenon (Thailand's Week of Joy and Death) indicate that from 2000 to 2010, about 5,050 people died and 187,300 were injured during the holiday. "

      "According to the newspaper, the holiday saw an increase in booze-related accidents of more than 17 percent compared to last year."

    2. Stephen Ralph


      In reply to Ken Taylor

      Hi Ken

      We live in a capitalist society. Alcohol manufacturers sell their wares to make a profit.
      They advertise.

      I find the all too willingness to pass the blame onto someone else in these issues appalling.
      If we want to improve the situation within the realm of alcohol, we can't keep passing the buck off to governments to go it alone.

      Parents need to take responsibility.
      Education in schools - where supposedly kids are taught to prepare them for the adult world.

      What is the value of teaching them maths, english etc if an ever growing number are going to end up with alcohol problems, or dead b/c of an alcohol-related car accident.

      They can be a budding Einstein, but if they have no lessons in how to survive the big bad world, it will serve them nothing.

      Educate them about ALL drugs.

      Perhaps it will go a long way to cut down the billions it costs to treat drug-related diseases and crime. Perhaps we will have heaps more to spend on education.

    3. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      You missed the part about labelling truth and advertising to include warnings about the reality of alcohol.
      Alcohol is a toxin which the human body specifically rejects and which causes harm.
      Time for the big warning labels on the front and the strict enforcement of truth in advertising with regards to alcohol and the strict blocking of all false associations used to market the product.

    4. Stephen Ralph


      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Hi Robert

      agree.....but why stop with alcohol.

      It seems to me that there is a huge rise in the incidence of cancer throughout the Western World, could be the whole world ?

      I think (as a complete layman) that it is to a large part b/c of the food we eat, and the pervasive amount of junk contained in food - preservatives, chemicals, salt & sugar together, additives, flavourings etc...

      Take a look at the label of any processed food and it is a nightmare of ingredients.

      Even fresh fruit & veg - who knows what chemicals are lurking beneath the skin.

      Chemical run-off into our waterways, that is then used to water crops.

      So by all means enforce truth in advertising and product labelling, but why stop at alcohol.

    5. Meg Thornton


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I'm with you on the education front, Stephen, but I think it needs to be done in such a way that the whole issue isn't demonised further (thus making it more attractive). One way of doing this is to start off teaching about drugs, alcohol and suchlike from the very earliest days in school - right back at pre-primary age - by teaching the dictum of "everything in moderation" from that age onwards. At the pre-primary age, you can start teaching kids about things like the downsides of too much of…

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    6. Stephen Ralph


      In reply to Meg Thornton

      Hi Meg

      excellent comment.

      I agree, don't overplay initially, but build the message.
      perhaps indicate that as we go thru life there are choices - there is good and bad, sometimes in the same thing. moderation = the good life!!

      but we need to start young and give kids the info about the pitfalls of growing up and becoming an adult, without making it seem like a downhill slide.

    7. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Robert, we already live in a nanny state, where those in authority attempt to control our personal choices. labelling a bottle of wine with images such as those that used to grace cigarette packets is just a further encroachment of the 'State' in to our already over-regulated lives. At some point the individual's right to choose (and accept responsibility for those choices) has to be acknowledged.

    8. John Perry


      In reply to John Phillip

      Exactly. Keep government out of controlling our personal choices and leave that to the corporate media and companies who are licensed to dispense addictive and dangerous substances.

    9. Ken Taylor

      Research Scientist at CSIRO

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Australian authorities have been fairly successful in making drunk driving and drinking per se separate issues which in my view is the right approach.

    10. Robert Tony Brklje
      Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to John Phillip

      You tell a lie to promote the telling of lies. You can only ever really choose when you have access to the truth. When you are presented with nothing but lies about something, you are not choosing the liar is choosing for you, now that is reality.
      The strict enforcement of the truth in relation to the marketing and sale of a product is nothing but that.
      I an trying to grasp your concept that lying about products is acceptable and to prevent that is the nanny state, so in your mind the concept that a government that allows and promotes lies is a reasonable government, is somehow reasonable.

    11. Shannon Conroy

      Manager at FMCG

      In reply to John Perry

      The "corporate media and companies" cannot control what you "choose". That is why it is your choice.

      In this nation we have lost the ability to make informed decisions because a lot of those choices are regulated away from us.

      We live in a society in which "duty of care" and liability due to RSA and other regulations have created a culture in which no one is responsible for the consequences of their actions, as it is always someone else's fault that they were "allowed" to make that choice.

    12. Stephen Ralph


      In reply to Shannon Conroy

      Hi Shannon

      to a certain extent I believe that advertising offers you a choice of product (alcohol).

      It doesn't compel you to use the product (alcohol).

      So if there are ads for say three beers currently in media circulation, it in one sense makes you choose perhaps one of three. It doesn't make you choose alcohol specifically, but a product OF alcohol.'

      If you don't want to use the product (alcohol), advertising will hold no sway.

      I know thats not to say that kids might not be swayed, but by and large its young adults who are binge drinking and they must be held accountable in one sense for their actions.

      Thats not to say education and other "dissuaders" should not be employed.

      Its a fine line perhaps.

    13. John Perry


      In reply to Shannon Conroy

      I think you'll find, Shannon, that my exaggerated reply was to point out that pointing the finger at government and parroting "nanny state" is just as ridiculous.

  2. Kim Darcy


    Luckily this is the last of THIS series of moral panic merchants, because one more article would have had the public health interest industry coming in and actually saying what this article very nearly does - booze companies are actually child pornographers. Really weird people.

  3. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter

    You can tell those people on the Corona billboard are glamorous and young? Your eyes must be better than mine.

    1. Kim Darcy


      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      And the billboard is 800 metres away from a...a...a...SCHOOL! Clearly, the billboard is just a kiddie fiddler's grooming tactic.

    2. Nonie Jekabsons

      Tree Spotter

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Re Billboards ; from my extensive travellings around Perth is it evident that most billboards such as those depicted are within Railway Reserve land. Some specific others are near the Forrest Highway and the Airport for example. Would have to say that the drive up Albany from Gosnells north has a branding coup going on - forget the spirit featured... something "rugged". Targeting markets? At least if you catch the train you are not drink driving.

  4. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    There are no advertising billboards in the A.C.T., as opposed to what I gather is the situation in most other Australian jurisdictions. Could be tricky to do, but has anyone ever used this difference as the basis of a study of attitudes/beliefs towards products?