Alcohol Advertising

“It frightens me still to realize how deeply alcohol advertisers understand the precise nature of addiction and how deliberately and destructively they use their knowledge” - Jean Kilbourne

"The trick for marketers is to project the right message in their advertisements to motivate those often motionless consumers to march down to the store or bar and exchange their money for a sip of liquor." - Advertising Age

Subliminal ideas, imagery, and words have been placed in many print advertisements for alcohol. 

The top 5% of drinkers of alcohol account for 42% of the nation’s total alcohol consumption. (1)

About 17.6 million Americans abuse or are dependent on alcohol (2)

This equates to 5.61% of the United States population. (17.6 million out of 313,539,000 total resident population). (3) 

Jean Kilbourne, who is the Chair of the Council on Alcohol Policy and is on the Board of Directors of the National Council on Alcoholism, states:

“Recognizing this important marketing fact, alcohol companies deliberately devise ads designed to appeal to heavy drinkers. Advertising is usually directed toward promoting loyalty and increasing usage, and heavy users of any product are the best customers. The heavy user of alcohol is usually an addict.” (4)

Drug policy reform expert Pete Guither writes: 

“So do alcohol companies do any marketing to heavy users? Sure. Brand marketing (in fact, brand marketing makes up the vast majority of their efforts). That’s where they get you to drink Bud Light instead of Miller Light (not in addition to). It isn’t changing the use of alcohol, only what brand is getting the larger share of the market.” (5)

Here is how the company Euro Display describes how to define the Heavy User Profile:

“…advertising messages should be created for, and directed at, the Heavy Using Customers in your category.”
“…the few Heavy Users represents the biggest part of your revenue (and profits).”
“So targeting the average user is stupid because you are wasting most of your efforts towards people that won't significantly affect your business.”
“What you must do is understand who your heavy users are and what makes them buy your product. And then give them even more compelling reasons to do that over again with an even stronger message.” (6)

Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., states:

“These figures make it clear that if alcoholics were to recover - i.e., stop drinking - the alcoholic beverage industry's gross revenue would be cut in half. I can't believe that industry executives want that to happen. On the contrary, my 15-year study of alcohol advertising makes me certain that advertisers deliberately target the heavy drinker and devise ads designed to appeal to him or her. As with any product, the heavy user is the best customer. However, when the product is a drug, the heavy user is often an addict.” (7)

Advertisers for alcohol focus on anxiety, cravings, addiction, and death in order to increase alcohol sales.

The subliminal imagery in designated alcohol advertisements includes images of animals, aliens, faces, monsters, skulls, angels, devils, disembodied heads, and spirits (ghosts).  A world is shown that is very nightmarish in nature.  Many of these advertisements also portray the subject of death.

Do you see the skull in this glass of alcohol?


Advertisers for alcohol know that many people drink alcohol in order to temporarily alleviate anxiety.  On a physiological level, many consumers drink alcohol to the point where anxiety disorders surface.  Therefore, what is originally used to alleviate anxiety can later become what creates anxiety disorders for many people who consume alcohol.
Advertisers of alcohol know that feelings of anxiousness will create the situation where people will drink alcohol in order to alleviate anxiety.

According to authors Thomas O'Guinn, Chris Allen, and Richard J. Semenik:

“People try to avoid feeling anxious.  They try to minimize, moderate, and alleviate anxiety.” (8)

“Often people will buy or consume things to help them in their continuing struggle with anxiety.” (9)

“Advertisers realize this and use many settings to demonstrate why you should be anxious and what you can do to alleviate the anxiety.” (10)

Advertisers pursue a change behavior-by-inducing-anxiety objective by playing on consumer anxieties.  The ads work through both thought and feelings.” (11)

According to the website, the Anxiety Support Center:

“We all know that having a drink can calm our nerves.  So for those of us who suffer from anxiety and stress, and particularly those of us who have one of the various anxiety disorders, alcohol can be the first thing we reach for, to make the anxious feelings go away.” (12)

For the short term, alcohol does lower anxiety levels for the following three reasons:

1.    “Alcohol acts quickly to depress the central nervous system, giving a feeling of relaxation for a short period of time.” (13)

2.    “Alcohol increases the chemical inhibitory neurotransmitter Gamma-aminobutyric acid (or “GABA”), which has the effect of stopping the anxious feelings being produced.” (14)

3.    “Alcohol’s chemical effect therefore makes it a fast acting “anxiolytic” (an anxiety reducer).” (15)

For the long term, alcohol becomes less effective in reducing anxiety for the following four reasons:

1.    “A recent study has shown that long-term exposure to alcohol reduces the levels and function of the GABA-benzodiazepine (or “GBzR”) receptor in the central nervous system.  In other words, long-term consumption actually reduces the anxiolytic function in the brain, making us less able to cope with anxiety in the long run.” (16)

2.    “Alcohol withdrawal symptoms experienced after drinking can actually increase anxiety levels beyond what was being experienced before.” (17)

3.    “Whilst the anxiety disorders social phobia and agoraphobia tend to precede heavy alcohol use, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder actually tend to follow heavy alcohol use.  In other words, long-term alcohol use can actually cause general anxiety and panic attacks.” (18)

4.    “The danger of spiralling alcohol dependence.” (19)

“Long-term studies that have shown that anxiety sufferers are statistically much more likely to have a dependence on alcohol than non-anxiety sufferers.  Similarly, anxiety has been identified by the medical profession as a strong risk factor associated with alcoholism.” (20)


Investigator Dante Pirouz, MBA, MA states:

“For heavily marketed products that are addictive such as cigarettes, alcohol, and even food, advertising cues may induce craving which might lead to higher purchase and consumption especially for addicted users.” (21)

According to the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism):

Craving “is based on alcohol's ability to produce an elevated mood or to help relieve an unpleasant mental state such as stress or anger. An unconscious learning process called reinforcement leads to repetition of the behavior (i.e., drinking) that produces the positive experience. Eventually, objects, environments, or emotions consistently associated with alcohol consumption can produce a similar response as powerfully as can alcohol itself. Such stimuli (i.e., cues) may include the sight of a bar, liquor store, or beverage advertisement; the company of friends who drink; or exposure to alcohol itself. An abstinent alcoholic exposed to appropriate cues will experience a conscious urge, or craving, for alcohol.” (22)
The “exposure to cues may lead to the activation of certain "automatic" cognitive functions, resulting in repetitive, unwanted thoughts about alcohol. These automatic thoughts are the cognitive equivalent of unconscious craving.” (23)

Author Raymond F. Anton states:

“Numerous models of the mechanisms underlying craving have been suggested, however. One of those models-the neuroadaptive model-suggests that the prolonged presence of alcohol induces changes in brain-cell function. In the absence of alcohol, those changes cause an imbalance in brain activity that results in craving. Furthermore, the adaptive changes generate memories of alcohol's pleasant effects that can be activated when alcohol-related environmental stimuli are encountered, even after prolonged abstinence, thereby leading to relapse.” (24)

“Similarly, stressful situations may trigger memories of the relief afforded by alcohol, which could also lead to relapse. Neurobiological and brain-imaging studies have identified numerous brain chemicals and brain regions that may be involved in craving. Psychiatric conditions that affect some of these brain regions, such as depression or anxiety, also may influence craving.” (25)

“Researchers and clinicians have reevaluated classical conditioning as a mechanism that may underlie a drinker's response to alcohol-related stimuli, or cues, in the environment (e.g., the smell of beer or the sight of a bar); as a result, researchers have developed hypotheses and experimental approaches related to cue-induced craving.” (26)

“Adults and adolescents with alcohol dependence have demonstrated differential physiological responses, such as increased salivation, to the sight and smell of alcoholic beverages.”  (27)

“Research “has demonstrated that dependent and social drinkers display substantial alterations in self-reported mood and desire for alcohol when presented with the sight, smell and taste of alcohol, alcohol advertisements, and alcohol-related words.  Of these responses, increased urge to drink is considered the most crucial given that it is a fundamental feature in the development and maintenance of hazardous drinking and alcoholism. Thus, a heightened urge to drink response to alcohol-related environmental stimuli is thought to be an important indicator of alcohol problems.” (28)


“Alcohol addiction is the compulsive need for beer, wine and hard liquors.” (29)

“When someone craves alcohol and cannot limit or contain his or her drinking that’s called alcoholism.” (30)

“An alcoholic’s craving is so great that it suppresses the will or ability to stop drinking. Most alcoholics need assistance to stop drinking.” (31)

There are many websites concerning alcohol advertising and youth.

“Youthful drinking is frequently characterized by binges and episodes of drunkenness, making young people a lucrative market for alcohol producers. According to the 1989 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey of high school seniors, 33 percent of students reported that they had consumed five or more drinks on one occasion within the previous two weeks. This group is vulnerable to ad campaigns that present heavy drinking as fun and normal.” (32)

“A study of alcohol advertising in magazines from 1997 to 2001 found that the number of beer and distilled spirits ads tended to increase with a magazine's youth readership. For every 1 million underage readers ages 12-19 in a magazine, researchers found 1.6 times more beer advertisements and 1.3 times more distilled spirits advertisements.” (33)

Marketing Guru Martin Lindstrom writes:

“Companies of all stripes know full well that advertisements also begin to shape children’s lasting preferences at an alarming young age and that the younger we are when we begin using a product, the more likely we are to keep using it for the rest of our lives.” (34)

“And how do you create a lifelong drinker?  Start him or her off early by rolling out sweet, flavored, colored, sodalike beverages (laden with alcohol), known in the industry as “alcopops.”  Though they are allegedly intended to be consumed by adults, an American Medical Association study found that alcopops are most popular amoung thirteen-year-old girls and that these kid-friendly, candylike cocktails make up 29 percent of the alcohol this group consumes.”  (35)

"Alcopops," are sweet alcoholic malt beverages that include the popular brands Bacardi Breezer, Skyy Blue, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, Jack Daniel’s Hard Cola, and Doc Otis’ Hard Lemonade.

Teen girls report seeing or hearing more alcopops ads on TV, radio, billboards, the Internet and in magazines more than women 21 or older. (36)

Alcohol policy specialist, James F. Mosher, JD explains

“…alcohol marketers consider young people a critical target audience. Youth under the 21 year old drinking age constitute at least 12 percent of the $100 billion alcohol market, and the earlier a young person begins to drink, the more likely he/she is to become a heavy user as an adult.” (37)

“The alcohol industry spends more than $3 billion each year marketing its products, with a disproportionate share of the spending reaching youth. Innovative marketing techniques include special attention to venues popular with young people, youth oriented visuals and messages, and youth-friendly products like alcopops and alcoholic energy drinks.” (38)

A study was conducted concerning the impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on adolescent alcohol use.  The report showed that:

“Longitudinal studies consistently suggest that exposure to media and commercial communications on alcohol is associated with the likelihood that adolescents will start to drink alcohol, and with increased drinking amongst baseline drinkers.”  (39)

“…alcohol advertising and promotion increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol.”  (40)

Another study was conducted concerning neural response to alcohol stimuli in adolescents with alcohol use disorder.  This study showed that:

“Teens with alcohol use disorders showed substantially greater brain activation to alcoholic beverage pictures than control youths, predominantly in the left anterior, limbic, and visual system areas.  The degree of brain response to the alcohol pictures was highest in youths who consumed more drinks per month and reported greater desires to drink.” (41)

“These results confirm previous studies by demonstrating an association between the urge to drink alcohol and blood oxygen use in areas of the brain previously linked to reward, desire, positive affect, and episodic recall. This study extends this relationship to adolescents with relatively brief drinking histories using visual alcohol stimuli, and suggests a neural basis for response to alcohol advertisements in youths with drinking problems.” (42)

According to the American Council for Drug Education, “Among the nation’s alcoholics and problem drinkers are as many as 4.5 million adolescents” (43)

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that every year in the United States, “approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking; this includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, as well as hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning” (44)


Many alcohol advertisements contain subliminal imagery like images of animals, aliens, scary faces, monsters, skulls, angels, devils, disembodied heads, and spirits (ghosts).  A world is shown that is very nightmarish in nature. 

There are two areas of study that shed light on why advertisers place this kind of subliminal imagery in designated alcohol print advertisements: Terror Management and Brain Fear Response


Terror Management Theory investigates how people respond to their fears and anxieties concerning death.

“Terror Management Theory hypothesizes that human awareness of the inevitability and possible finality of death creates the potential for existential terror, which is controlled largely in two ways:

(a) faith in an internalized cultural worldview
(b) self-esteem, which is attained by living up to the standards of value prescribed by one’s worldview” (45)

The subliminal images pertaining to death in an alcohol print advertisement is mortality salience information. Mortality salience information means the awareness of one’s eventual death.  Undetected, these subliminal images provide mortality salience information to the subconscious mind of the viewer of an alcohol print advertisement. 

According to one terror management theory study on fear appeal and binge drinking showed that exposure “to mortality-related information about the risks of binge drinking was found to result in greater willingness to binge drink among binge drinkers and non-binge drinkers who perceived this behaviour to benefit self-esteem.” (46)

“Research findings suggest that mortality-related health promotion campaigns might inadvertently make mortality salient, and hence precipitate the very behaviours which they aim to deter among some recipients.” (47)

Rachel Carey and Kiran Sarma, from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway examined why ‘fear-appeals’ may not work when it comes to addressing risk-taking behavior.

“Social scientists have explored the psychological and socio-demographic factors that are believed to predict how young people  respond to health-related advice. In recent years attention has focused, in particular, on the efficacy of fear-messages (that you may suffer injury or death) on behaviour and this has been articulated within the theoretical paradigm, Terror Management Theory (TMT).” (48)

“TMT proponents ask the question: how can we continue to function in life, knowing that death is inevitable and can occur at any time? Terror of death is managed, they argue, by minimizing vulnerability.” (49)

“So when told by a clinician that risky…behaviour can lead to acquiring a serious… disease (mortality salient information), the young male is confronted with death and should cope through minimizing vulnerability (behaviour avoidance).” (50)

“However, behaviour avoidance clearly does not always occur and TMT postulates that this arises from two possible reasons. First, the youth may deny vulnerability to the threat through cognitive distortions that may, for instance, take the form of ‘it won’t happen to me because I’m young’  Second, and at an unconscious level, where the risk-taking behaviour is part of the individual’s self-esteem, he may react defensively to the message and actually engage in the behaviour more reverently as a defence mechanism. So in responding to mortality salient advice, and where the behaviour is part of the self-esteem of the youth, he may defend against the terror-emotion by bolstering self-esteem and continue to engage in the risky behaviour, potentially on a more extreme level. (51)

“Where self-esteem is linked to the risky behaviour, fear messages are less effective and can be counter-productive” (52)

“A wide range of other risk-taking behaviours have also been examined, including binge drinking…and studies have consistently suggested that where self-esteem is linked to the risky behaviour, fear messages are less effective and can be counter-productive.” (53)

“Not withstanding the limitations of the growing body of literature in this area, concern is growing that fear-based health promotion advertisements and one-on-one advice may be largely ineffective with some risk-takers, and may actually promote such behaviours.” (54)

Since the subliminal images pertaining to death in alcohol print advertising is mortality salience information that reaches the subconscious mind of the viewer of an alcohol print advertisement, could it be possible that the heavy drinker reacts defensively to this mortality salience information and actually engages in drinking more reverently as a defence mechanism?

As mentioned previously in the findings by Rachel Carey and Kiran Sarma,

“So in responding to mortality salient advice, and where the behaviour is part of the self-esteem of the youth, he may defend against the terror-emotion by bolstering self-esteem and continue to engage in the risky behaviour, potentially on a more extreme level.” (55)


Psychologist Robert E. Corrigan and Hal C. Becker, an assistant professor in experimental neurology at Tulane performed extensive experiments in subliminal perception in the 1950’s.  They formed the company PRECON (from Preconscious) Process and Equipment Corporation in order to market the technique commercially.

Robert E. Corrigan and Hal C. Becker knew “from their laboratory experiments that viewers will react to words like BLOOD and to pictures of skulls with increased tremor activity, faster breathing, sweating palms and other indications of heightened emotions.” (56)

In a more recent study, researchers “at Columbia University Medical Center have found that fleeting images of fearful faces – images that appear and disappear so quickly that they escape conscious awareness – produce unconscious anxiety that can be detected in the brain with the latest neuroimaging machines.” (57) 

“It’s one of the first times that neuroimaging has captured the brain’s processing of unconscious emotion.  Using a high-resolution version of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers observed a structure in the brain important for emotional processing – the amygdala – lights up with activity when people unconsciously detected the fearful faces.” (58)

“Psychologists have suggested that people with anxiety disorders are very sensitive to subliminal threats and are picking up stimuli the rest of us do not perceive,” says Dr. Joy Hirsch, professor of neuroradiology and psychology and director of the fMRI Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center, where the study was conducted. “Our findings now demonstrate a biological basis for that unconscious emotional vigilance.” (59)

“While the subjects were looking at a computer, the researchers displayed an image of a fearful face onto the monitor for 33 milliseconds, immediately followed by a similar neutral face. The fearful face appeared and disappeared so quickly that the subjects had no conscious awareness of it.” (60)

“But the fMRI scans clearly revealed that the brain had registered the face and reacted, even though the subjects denied seeing it. These scans show that the unconsciously perceived face activates the input end of the amygdala, along with regions in the cortex that are involved with attention and vision.” (61)

“The amygdalas of anxious people was far more active than the amygdalas of less anxious people. And anxious subjects showed more activity in the attention and vision regions of the cortex” (62)

When drinkers of alcohol, that suffer from anxiety, view alcohol print advertisements that contain subliminal images of scary faces, monsters, skulls, devils, disembodied heads,  spirits (ghosts), or other nightmarish figures, these images register in their subconscious minds and have a neurological effect on their amygdalas. 



Excessive alcohol use* accounted for an estimated average of 80,000 deaths (annually). (63)

66% of the population in the United States consumes alcohol. (64)

There are 17.6 million Americans adults who abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent. (65)

The 9.6% of adult alcoholics drink 25% of the alcohol that is consumed by all adult drinkers. (66)

Every day in the United States more than 13,000 children and teens take their first drink. (67)

American youth who drinking before the of age 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics than young people who do not drink before the age of 21. (68)

Alcohol abuse is responsible “for many health and social problems, including motor-vehicle crashes, violence, suicide, hypertension, acute myocardial infarction, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome, and sudden infant death syndrome”  (69)

$223.5 billion in economic costs resulting from excessive alcohol consumption in the United States. (70)

In 2009, 10,839 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (32%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States. (71)

The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $51 billion. (72)


On a global scale, the “harmful use of alcohol results in approximately 2.5 million deaths each year. (73)

Almost 4% of all deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol, greater than deaths caused by HIV/AIDS, violence or tuberculosis. (74)

320,000 young people aged 15-29 years die annually, from alcohol-related causes, resulting in 9% of all deaths in that age group. (75)


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