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What is media literacy and why does it matter?

Alcohol ‘advertising’ is everywhere, and our kids are constantly exposed to powerful and persuasive messages presenting alcohol as an essential part of everyday life and a solution to many of life’s problems.

Alcohol advertising is not just something we see on television or read in a magazine. It is increasingly a conversation between alcohol brands and potential consumers.

The majority of alcohol brands have a web presence, and they are consistently ineffective in restricting underage access. They have multiple social media pages which encourage consumers to like, comment, share, engage and build a relationship with the alcohol brand and this interaction is associated with hazardous drinking.

Point-of-sale promotions are abundant in packaged alcohol outlets, and these promotions promote purchase of large quantities of alcohol, link desirable products to volume alcohol purchases and increase the amount of alcohol people purchase.

A disturbing proportion of young people own alcohol branded merchandise and there is an association between this ownership and drinking-related attitudes and behaviours; as well as making them walking alcohol advertisements that further influence their peers.

Why don’t we just fix the problem?

Australia continues to allow the alcohol industry to self-regulate its own advertising.

This is despite decades of evidence that self-regulation of even traditional advertising is ineffective, and that young people perceive messages in alcohol advertisements that directly contravene the industry’s own codes.

The current system appears to have been developed to protect the interests of marketers rather than the wellbeing of our children.

For example, alcohol advertisements are only allowed on TV during periods of M, MA or AV programs except during the live broadcast of sporting events, which are often watched by families.

Similarly, the Outdoor Media Association has limited “the advertising of alcohol products on fixed signs that are located within a 150 metre sight line of a primary or secondary school” except “where the school is in the vicinity of a club, pub or bottle shop or any other venue that sells alcohol products”.

As parents, and as community, we lack the power to protect our children from exposure to advertising. So we need to develop ways to reduce the harms of this exposure.

What is (alcohol) media literacy and why does it matter?

‘Media literacy’ refers to the skills and knowledge needed to analyse and evaluate media.

Learning how advertising shapes our way of thinking is a powerful tool for countering the deceptive messages in advertising and empowering people to make better, more informed decisions. Media literacy equips young people with skills to consciously question messages that they are exposed to.

Teaching young people how alcohol advertisers use words and images to imply that alcohol is the solution to their problems helps them make decisions that are good for them, not just for the advertisers.

For example, they can critically evaluate the implied promise that drinking will make them more attractive, popular and successful; messages that adolescents (and adults) currently see – and many believe – in alcohol advertising.

Alcohol media literacy programs have been trialled and found to be effective in the United States. For example, an intervention with third graders resulted in children being less likely to expect positive results from drinking alcohol; and interventions with older students have resulted in being reduced likely of drinking and reduced susceptibility to persuasive appeals.

In Australia, a primary school alcohol media literacy intervention resulted in higher media literacy skills, lower social norms, and lower positive alcohol expectancies. And our pilot study in New South Wales secondary schools increased students’ alcohol advertising literacy and reduced perceived social norms.

In an ideal world, we would have an industry that didn’t promote its products to young people and a government that protected children from exposure to alcohol advertising.

In the real world, we can educate our children to be more critical about alcohol advertising. Now, that’s a GAME CHANGER.

Professor Sandra Jones was in Canberra on 29 July 2016 to launch media literacy program, Game Changer+, in the ACT. Game Changer+ is an initiative of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and is supported by the ACT Government under the ACT Health Promotion Grants Program. The course is based on the successful New South Wales media literacy pilot developed by Professor Jones’ team at the Australian Catholic University’s Centre for Health and Social Research.

Sandra Jones

Professor Sandra Jones is an ARC Future Fellow and the Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. From 2001 to 2014 she was the Founding Director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong. Her research focuses on the relationship between media and health, including the impacts of advertising in the print and electronic media on health behaviour, and the use of social marketing to improve population health. She also conducts research in the area of advertising and marketing regulation, particularly in relation to alcohol marketing. Sandra has published more than 150 refereed papers and been awarded in excess of $8 million in research funding. Sandra is also a member of numerous alcohol-related policy and advocacy bodies, and a Director of Amaze (Autism Victoria).

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