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It goes down very smoothly

There is a dangerous relationship between alcoholic beverage commercials and the consumption of alcohol by youngsters

eduardo cesarWhere drinking and adolescence are concerned, the well-worn slogan “I am you tomorrow” is certainly not misleading advertising. A project supported by FAPESP and coordinated by psychologist Ilana Pinsky, from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), evaluated the relationship between advertising and alcoholic beverages (especially beer) and its consumption by youngsters. The results will not go down “smoothly” (as the commercials say) into the beer industry’s throat, which invoices over R$ 20 billion a year and spent R$ 700 million in advertising in 2006 alone. “We have information that questions the efficacy of the advertising self-regulation produced by the National Council for Advertising Self Regulation (Conar), through a survey carried out among intermediate education students from São Bernardo public schools. The other study, which targeted younger students (6th and 7th grade), reveals a link between alcoholic beverage advertising variables and the consumption of alcohol by this sample”, explains Ilana, who presented her papers in the 33rd Annual Alcohol Epidemiology Symposium of the Kettil Brunn Society for Social and Epidemiological Research on Alcohol, this month, in Budapest, Hungary.

According to the researcher, if up to the year 2000 (when Law 10.167 prohibited cigarette advertising in the media) alcohol was already the most advertised product, today it reigns alone, containing messages that associate drinking with solving problems, tensions, synonymous with friendliness, sexuality, success, and even portraying a nationalistic content, as seen in the studies conducted during the last World Football Cup. “In Canada, for example, it is prohibited to associate drinking with status symbols or to convey the idea that social acceptance, personal success, business or sports achievements can be attained by consuming the product”, recalls the professor. A survey carried out in 2001 by Unifesp revealed that alcoholism affects 11.2% of the Brazilian population and that among these, 17.1% are men. However, these studies overlooked a fundamental fact: the age of the consumers. “Our study with children and adolescents aged 10 to 17 revealed that watching these commercials frequently causes the expectation of drinking in the future. Many of the boys interviewed said that the commercials encouraged them to drink. Many stated that ‘the parties I go to are just like those in the commercials’. Moreover, there is a generalized belief that the alcohol commercials ‘tell the truth’, making youngsters believe  them in terms of defining their own idea of ‘normal drinking habits’.”

Ilana highlights the importance of the concerns raised in the international meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) last year in Valencia, Spain: There is a worldwide trend, particularly in the developing countries, of the alcoholic beverages industry targeting their products to the young segment of the population, which produces the “I am you tomorrow” side effect. Hence the severity of the findings of the second study conducted by Unifesp’s group, whose results revealed that beer commercials violate many of the rules of Brazil’s advertising self-regulation code. Of the 16 rules included in the study, 12 were broken, according to the evaluation of the adolescent public, especially the one which prohibits advertising from inducing abusive and irresponsible drinking, the one which vetoes conveying the impression that the product is being recommended due to its effects on people’s senses and, above all, the rule that prohibits using images, language or the idea that consuming the product is a sign of maturity or that it contributes to professional, social or sexual success.

All you have to do is close your eyes and try to remember some of the recent beer commercials to notice that the message targets the young and that they are open to it. The worst of all this is that society is well aware of this reality: There are over 120 projects underway at the Legislative branch, many of them demanding the prohibition of alcohol commercials, following the tobacco example, as occurs in France and Holland. “Countries that prohibit hard liquor advertising have consumption levels 16% lower and 10% fewer fatal car accidents than countries with no prohibition. In the case of beer and wine, the corresponding figures are 11% and 23% respectively”, says Ronaldo Laranjeira, coordinator of the Alcohol and Drugs Research Unit (Uniad-Unifesp). Brazil, the UK, Australia and the US opted for ethical regulation. “Brazil’s advertisement sector started to organize itself in the 80’s, editing internal behavior rules aimed at avoiding external interference (from the government). The beverage industry, including the advertisement and publicity sectors, advocate the efficacy of ethical control. In the case of beer, the data obtained reveal a different reality”, says Ilana.

“The reason behind companies advertising efforts is to gain consumer loyalty and expand their market share in relation to the consumers of other brands. We compete for market shares based on advertising. A study conducted by Luciano Coutinho Associados Consultores at our request analyzed the relationship between the numbers of TV audiences and consumption. The correlation found was insignificant from a statistical point of view”, stated Milton Seligman, chairman of the National Beer Industry Trade Association (Sindicerv), at the public hearing held in 2006 by the National Congress Communications Council, which discussed alcohol in the media. Seligman highlighted the need for the government to adopt different strategies in the case of tobacco and alcohol. Where cigarettes are concerned, the perception of the risk is very long term. “Something will only happen to me when I’m old and have already stopped smoking. Therefore, it is necessary to interrupt this notion as soon as possible”, he explained. “In the case of alcohol, the damage (young people drinking, risks of violence in families and accidents) are perceived as very short term: ‘tonight’, ‘after the party’. It is therefore necessary to amplify all the communication codes to increase the perception of immediate risk. In other words, invest in plenty of communication and advertising campaigns that lead to a change in behavior, rather than put an end to the commercials.”

At the same hearing, José Inácio Pizani, chairman of the Brazilian Association of Radio and TV Broadcasters (Abert), warned that the attempts to prohibit alcoholic beverage commercials put “freedom of expression at risk”. “Yes we are concessionaries, but we are also businessmen. We have the legal obligations of a private being and I insist: if the prohibitions or damaging restrictions to commercials are approved, who will bear the expenses of Brazil’s open radio and TV broadcasting? Is the objective to put an end to them?” The tone was the same as the one adopted in the editorial of the O Globo newspaper, published on the May 8 of this year, that criticized the decision of the National Sanitary Inspection Agency (Anvisa), which conforming to the National Policy on Alcohol, according to Lula’s administration decree, proposes to adopt measures to reduce the consumption of alcohol and set limits to its advertising (such as considering beer, ice and coolers as alcoholic beverages, which was not the case before, and prohibiting commercials from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.). “In the dialogue, perhaps the Ministry of Health will understand that blaming advertising for alcoholism is equivalent to condemning the automotive industry’s commercials and to blaming them for the violence in traffic”, according to O Globo newspaper.

“Studies reveal that brand loyalty, as the beer industry advocates, ends up increasing the product’s general consumption. A commercial can increase the demand for a certain brand, but does not considerably affect the consumption of others, and can even cause an overall alcohol consumption growth. If a beer brand airs a successful campaign, this encourages its competitors to fight back with an even stronger campaign”, argues Ilana. Furthermore, the researcher continues, in order to break through Conar’s ethical “blockade”, the industry has been using  generalized language in the commercials, making it easy to escape  the regulation’s precepts. “Specific niches are developed based on the association of a specific brand with sports, life styles and other artifacts intended to win over the consumer through identification”, analyzes Laranjeira, who believes that ethical regulation is merely be a way to circumvent “the government’s lookout”, producing a sub-regulation that goes against public interest. In many cases, denouncements to Conar regarding irregularities in beer campaigns are made by the industry itself, i.e., a competing beer producer, warns Ilana. “Anvisa’s broadcasting time regulation, although a positive attempt to discipline beer commercials, will have little effect, since the study shows that regardless of the time of day, the commercials continue to be attractive to adolescents.”

However, Ilana highlights that “the idea is not only to attribute attitudes and behavior in traffic and the consumption of alcoholic beverages to the commercials”, but simply to focus on an aspect that was not studied much until then, also taking into account an audience equally disregarded by the studies. “Society embraces paradoxical attitudes regarding the theme: on one hand, it condemns alcohol abuse by youngsters, but is permissive where stimulating consumption through advertising is concerned”, as mentioned in the article by Flávio Pechansky and Cláudia Maciel, from the Research Center on Alcohol and Drugs of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. “Even with the warnings that the product is ‘for adults’ and about ‘moderation’, there is a lack of proportion between this and the enormous impact of the commercials for alcohol consumption by young people.” According to the researchers, adolescents are forming their identities, and even with no diagnosis of abuse, because they become used to experiencing a range of situations only under the influence of alcohol, the risk of dependence follows. “Several adolescents associate leisure with alcohol or only manage to engage in affective or sexual initiatives if they drink. For a developing mind, the paradox of society’s position and the lack of firmness in complying with the laws (as well as easy access, family examples and a lack of parental support) constitute an ideal cultural potion for experimenting with drugs and drinks, which contributes to a precocious exposure to abusive consumption.”

“It is legitimate to suppose that a society has the right to defend itself from what it considers to be pernicious and that this can be understood as something more than mere access to the TV’s remote control. And, in the same way as it is legitimate and desirable that in democracy an activity self regulates itself, it is also legitimate to question whether the corporate or financial interests are overriding the interests of society at large”, evaluates Ilana.