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Responding to alcohol ads: A change is brewing

As a qualified teacher I am a firm believer in the power of education to transform lives as students’ minds are opened to new ideas and new possibilities. I am particularly passionate about equipping students with skills to become critical thinkers who question and challenge the world that they live in.

Media literacy education programs, which give young people the skills to interpret and challenge alcohol advertising, can be an effective way to reduce alcohol-related harms.

The alcohol advertising landscape

Young people are living in a world that is inundated with alcohol advertising.

It’s difficult to escape when watching televised or live sport, with alcohol sponsorships ensuring logos are on the players’ clothing, sports grounds, boundary banners, as well as during ad breaks. Furthermore a new type of ‘user generated’ advertising has surfaced which is particularly difficult to regulate, with alcohol brands on social media.

It is concerning that young people are not only exposed to alcohol advertising, they are receptive to it.

Research has shown that young people’s attitudes towards drinking, intentions to drink and drinking behaviours are impacted by the alcohol advertisements they are surrounded by.

We know that alcohol and the developing brain of a young person do not mix. Underage drinking can result in impaired memory and brain functioning, injuries, risky sexual behaviour and self-harm.

What can we do about it?

So how do we respond to the media’s apparent promotion of alcohol to young people?

From a public health perspective, we would ideally like to see stricter and more effective regulation of alcohol advertising, a reduction in the number and location of outlets that sell alcohol, volumetric taxation of alcohol, and sufficient health information and warning labels on alcohol products. However, we should not bypass the need to implement evidence-based alcohol prevention programs in schools.

One particular approach to preventing alcohol-related harms that is gaining momentum is media literacy education.

Media literacy education advocates equipping students with the skills needed to respond to alcohol advertising in order to challenge health behaviours and attitudes.

Core principles include understanding that the media messages are carefully crafted by people using particular techniques, that we each interpret through a unique lens, and which can differ from reality. This includes examining the techniques used to make advertisements appealing, the implicit messages conveyed in media texts, and the varying purposes of advertising including to persuade and entertain.

A recent systematic literature review of existing alcohol media literacy programs developed and implemented in the United States, found the programs to be effective in increasing students’ media literacy skills and lowering pre-drinking behaviour (that is, the students’ interest in alcohol-related products).

Our current research involves the development, implementation and evaluation of an alcohol media literacy program for Australian upper primary school children. The 10-lesson program is hands-on, and involves students creating counter-advertisements to reflect truths about alcohol.

A preliminary evaluation of the program conducted with 37 students in one independent school found that students had improved media literacy skills, a greater understanding of the media’s persuasive intent, less interest in alcohol-related products and a lowered perception of the number of teenagers who drink alcohol after the program had been taught. The program was revised based on findings from the preliminary study and is about to be conducted and evaluated in New South Wales public schools as part of a multi-school study.

This approach needs to form one part of a multi-faceted effort to reduce future alcohol-related harms.

Now more than ever, young people need to be empowered to see through, and respond to, the alcohol advertisements they are exposed to.

Chloe Gordon

Chloe Gordon is a doctoral student in the School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. She is a qualified teacher, holding a Bachelor of Education (Honours) and has teaching/tutoring experience across primary school, high school and University. Chloe has presented her research work at national and international conferences in Australia and overseas. Her current research interests include alcohol abuse prevention, media literacy education, curriculum design, and program evaluation.


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