Alcohol Advertisements Exploit Younger Crowds

Alecsey Boldeskul

According to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), approximately 19 percent of teenagers 12 to 17 years old were reported to be engaged in alcohol abuse last year. As teenagers grow older, they tend to maintain a higher level of alcohol consumption. The survey reports that approximately 32 percent of young people aged 18 to 24 continue alcohol abuse.  In fact, this is the most troubled age group having the highest rates of alcohol use, alcohol dependence, and need for treatment. In spite of restrictions, several millions of teenagers and adolescents are interested in drinking alcohol and are able to get alcohol.  According to the Federal Trade Commissionís survey, alcohol advertising and promotions do not reach, and do not affect teenagers and adolescents.  But I contend that younger crowds are reached by alcohol advertisers.  Unfortunately, teenagers and adolescents see only the obvious side of alcohol ads--messages on how drinking alcohol may benefit them.  At the same time, alcohol advertisers know that all these messages is nothing but drawing a veil over the exploitative nature of alcohol ads, and advertisers donít care how younger crowds may benefit from drinking, advertisers simply want their money.

Roland Barthes, a French philosopher and literary critic, calls advertisements the ìsignsî (47).   The sign is a system of signification, which consists of two elements: the ìsignifierî--actual graphical representation that signifies a concept, and the ìsignifiedî--the concept, which is signified by the ìsignifierî (Barthes 115).  The author says that, if the ìsignifierî is viewed apart from the concept it utters, the ìsignifierî has no meaning and is nothing more than the meaningless empty form. Thus, the ìsignifierî endowed with some meaning can be easily emptied and replenished again with an absolutely new concept or meaning. The same product can have a set of different ads targeting different audiences.  Alcohol advertisers, for example, tap into the rebellious side of teenagers and adolescents, into their need for individual identities.  Here, we witness an emotional appeal--one of the most powerful and secret tools of the mass exploitation.

 It is fairly easy for alcohol advertisers to exploit younger crowds.  They often place alcohol ads in the mass media with do have a significant underage audience. For example, Jane magazine targets women in their twenties, which allows the magazine to advertise such restricted products, as alcohol and tobacco.  However, Jane Magazine also has a big readership of seventeen or eighteen year old girls.  When it comes to editorial contents, the magazine tries to adapt to both adult and adolescent audiences.  But Jane claims having no underage readers in order to avoid legal consequences, and as a result, had been able to promote alcohol products. The ads featured contain simplistic messages about the benefits of drinking alcohol.  The messages create a misperception of alcohol being extremely beneficial in solving some problems, while hiding the fact that alcohol can contribute to developing the problems. The benefits of alcohol drinking are portrayed in the situations in which teenagers and adolescents want to find themselves. As a result, some of them will drink alcohol, trying to recreate situations seen in alcohol advertisements.


Bacardi Rum is an example of alcohol product that is aimed at the teenage and adolescent audience.  It is the major beverage advertised in Jane Magazine. For example, The September 1999 issue of Jane Magazine features the ad from a $15 million promotional campaign, ìBacardi by Nightî (60-61).  The ad portrays a young couple; she is smiling and happy, she is having a wonderful time. She is holding a glass with drink, ice, and lime in it.  He passionately kisses her cheek. It seems that they have been together for a long time, but actually they have met only a couple of hours ago.  But there is something missing.  It viewed alone, this ad tells that they drink some alcohol, and that their full of fun evening made possible only because of that alcohol.  Of course, the ad gives us the name of alcohol beverageóBacardiówritten across the page.  However, it is not enough because some teenagers and adolescents may not know what the word ëBacardií actually represents. To fill the ad with its complete sense advertisers had to place the image of Bacardi Rum bottle on the opposite page. Now, the ad becomes very specific, and the viewers will know the name and the look of alcohol beverage they should buy to copy a lifestyle signified by this particular ad.  At this point, it doesnít matter how the couple met, and what they will do later that night.  What matters is the particular innocent moment in their life, captured and signified by the ad. The ad viewers see a lifestyle where negative consequences of drinking alcohol do not exist.

The ad portrays two strangers united over a glass of Bacardi as if it is a cultural tradition. The ad doesnít tell viewer about the consequences of drunk driving or about risks of unsafe sex. It only suggests,  ìenjoy Bacardi responsibly.î I know what responsible drinking is, but I am not so sure that many teenagers and adolescents know it either.  Letís take a look at the girlís face.  In fact, her face has an irresponsible expression, as if she has no control over the situation portrayed in the ad.  The ad (the sign) becomes empty again, and is ready to be filled with another concept.  Anyone can fill this ad with a unique concept that would be most appropriate to oneís needs. Moreover, there can be the endless variety of concepts.  For example, I can see the girl being manipulated because alcohol (Bacardi) suppresses her inhibitions and makes her passive, vulnerable, and irresponsible. Similarly, if seen by younger audiences, this ad can induce a variety of concepts, either bad or good, and can make some teenagers and adolescents want to try Bacardi Rum.

One may wonder: is there anything that can be done to prevent teenagers and adolescents from being exposed to alcohol advertisements; thus, being exploited?  On societal level, we cannot stop this because rules and laws that regulate advertising alcohol to younger crowds are not strict enough (Stamborski paragraph 16).  Perhaps, only a thorough parenting control can stop a flow of alcohol related messages from advertisers to teenagers and adolescents.  Parents should be aware of what is going on in their childrenís lives.  Parents should actively monitor what their children read and watch.  I hope that parents will catch up on controlling their children. But for now, it would be nice if alcohol advertisers start putting warning messages about the possible negative consequences of alcohol use in their ads.

Bacardi by Night. Advertisement. Jane Magazine. September 1999. 60-61
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology.  New York: Hill and Wang. 1968. 42.
Barthes, Roland.  Mythologies. New York: Hill & Wang, 1998. 115.
Evans, Janet. Self-Regulation in the Alcohol Industry. US Federal Trade Commission. 13 Sept.1999. Online. 12 Nov.99
Shalala, Donna. 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
            Administration. 18 Aug. 1999. Online posting.  1 Dec. 99 <>.
Stamborski, Al. ìFTC Asks that Alcohol Ads be Kept From Minors A-B Begins Campaign Against Drinking Abuse.î
            St. Louis Post ñ Dispatch 10 Sept. 1999: C10.

Back to syllabus