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Media literacy techniques can help teens view alcohol marketing with a critical eye.

These days, advertising is almost everywhere we go — on television, in the bus, on the street, and on the Internet. Alcohol advertising is no exception. And, as is the case with most advertising, alcohol advertising makes the product look great! 

Alcohol ads typically associate a brand with cool, sexy people and a fun activity. The various elements in alcohol ads are specifically chosen to communicate ideas llike this product is for people like me; this alcohol product makes occasions better; this product is popular, or stylish, or creative; and people want to be seen drinking this product. Ultimately, these concepts come together to suggest: if I use this product, I can be cool, sexy, and successful like the people in the ad, having fun like they seem to be.    

So what can a parent to do?  

Use "media literacy" techniques to help your teen view ads critically. From time to time, when your family sits down to watch television, use the occasion as a teachable moment. Tailor the moment given your teen’s age and attention level. Pick an ad, and draw out their thoughts by asking questions like:

  • Who created or paid for the ad, and why?
  • What do they want you to do?
  • What techniques are being used to make the scene and the product look attractive? For example,
    • Who are the people in the ad and how do they look?  
    • What are they doing, and where? 
    • Does the ad try to associate the brand with fun, or sports, or humor? How?
    • Does the ad suggest that alcohol somehow makes the situation better?
    • How does this ad make you feel? Is this an accident, or did the advertiser intend it?
    • What message is the ad trying to get you to believe?
    • What values and lifestyles are represented by this ad?
    • What isn’t the ad saying? Does it show anything bad about alcohol? 

Exercises like this can help your teen better understand that alcohol ads communicate the advertiser’s point of view and learn how to challenge what an ad is saying, internally. With time, the exercises will help your teen realize that they don’t have to buy in to an advertiser’s message. Educators call it learning to read between the lines, and it is relevant to all media messages, both commercial and noncommercial. 

Alcohol advertising regulation

The First Amendment provides substantial protections to speech, and thus substantially limits the government’s ability to regulate truthful, non-deceptive alcohol advertising based on concerns about underage appeal. For this reason, the Federal Trade Commission has long encouraged the alcohol industry to adopt and comply with self-regulatory standards to reduce the extent to which alcohol advertising targets teens, whether by placement or content. 

Most alcohol advertisers have pledged to comply with one of three voluntary self-regulatory codes designed to limit targeting of teens. Among other provisions, these codes direct that no more than 28.4% of the audience for an ad may consist of people under 21, based on reliable audience data; and that ad content should not appeal primarily to people under 21. For more information about the codes visit the websites for the Distilled Advertising Council of the United States, the Beer Institute, and the Wine Institute.

The Federal Trade Commission monitors compliance with these codes formally and informally. It has published the results of three major studies on alcohol advertising and industry self-regulation. The 2014 Alcohol Report is the most recent report.

If you believe that an ad doesn't comply with codes, consider filing a complaint. You can submit a complaint with:

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission collects complaints about potentially deceptive business practices, identity theft, and privacy violations to identify patterns of wrongdoing and determine how best to allocate FTC resources. The FTC does not, however, resolve individual consumer complaints.

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