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Curbs on Alcohol Ads?

The British Medical Association has called for a complete ban on
alcohol advertising. Wait for the knees to jerk: calls deriding the
‘nanny state’ and its paternalism will soon follow. One common theme, I
predict, will be that the recommendations are infantilizing. We should
trust responsible adults to be capable of making their own decisions.
Advertising simply informs them of their options (so long as it
regulated, so that it doesn’t deceive); so informed, they can be relied
upon to act as they see fit. If they have bad values, they will act
badly, if not they won’t: advertising won’t change that.

There is some plausibility to this response. On the other hand, if advertising didn’t work, companies wouldn’t pay for it. Can it work, for instance to get people not simply to change brands, but to drink when otherwise they wouldn’t have? Can it get people who judge that they ought – say – to stop at two to have four or five (or six)? The answer to both questions is very likely to be ‘yes’.

There is strong evidence that self-control is a limited resource. That is, we only have a finite amount of the ability to resist temptation: having used it up, we tend to give in. The direct evidence here comes from studies of people asked to do successive self-control tasks; they do worse at the second task than do other subjects who do not have to engage in a first task, and worse than subjects who have to engage in a first task that does not require much in the way of self-control. So, for instance, attempting to watch a funny movie without smiling makes it more difficult for dieters to eat sensibly while engaging in a subsequent taste perception task. Self-control resources are restored by the passing of time.

The relevance of all this to advertising should be obvious. If an ad actually motivates someone to drink, but that person decides – because they have good values, let’s say – to exercise self-control and resist the temptation, they can indeed succeed (just as the critics argued). But having used up some of their self-control resources by resisting, they will be vulnerable to subsequent lapses. Advertising really can bring people to act in ways that, beforehand, they judged they ought not to.

Of course, the factors that determine how people act are complex, and really do include the factors that the critics emphasize (like our values). Moreover, it would be wrong to conclude that ads make people act against their wills (if they didn’t find alcohol tempting in the first place, they would not be moved by the ad, and if they valued abstinence sufficiently they would be able to resist most real temptations). It would also be wrong to conclude from these studies that there is no such thing as responsible advertising (notice that only in combination with easy availability of the tempting good can the advertising do its work to get people to act in ways they wouldn’t have endorsed beforehand: there is no reason to think that having seen an ad last night, after closing time, will make me go to the pub now it is open). But the evidence does strongly suggest that it is not paternalistic, but realistic, to recognize that ordinary people (me, for instance) can be moved by temptation to act in ways that they will later regret, and therefore to take seriously proposals to regulate the temptations.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Is there any study or group of studies that indicate just what the effect of advertising is on decision making? I am willing to concede that a picture of a person drinking something will encourage drinking (bad stuff) in a person who is already inclined in that direction/ But lots of things do that!

    If there is no information indicating some causal connection between advertising and action with respect to the thing advertised, what sense does it make to ban advertising?

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