Forbidden fruit: are children tricked into wanting alcohol?

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 – Drinkwise.org.au”), 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

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