Beyonce, Jay-Z and other African-American super stars – despite often being parents themselves – make an unholy alliance with Big Alcohol and by endorsing and promoting alcohol brands expose black youth to an avalanche of alcohol glorification; this really puts already vulnerable and marginalized youth in harms way…

Children between the ages of 13 to 15 years are most exposed to alcohol and tobacco imagery and lyrics on YouTube, according to new data published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This has to be red flagged by all parents, Ministries of Health, Education, Sports etc. But to my amazement it hasn’t raised the outcry that one should expect. Teenagers these days are always on the internet. I would guess that due to the smartphone, teenagers are on the internet most of their waking hours. YouTube has become the main mode of entertainment and no one seems to care what’s going on there. Not only YouTube but apps like Instagram, Twitter have also been used by Big Alcohol to market their products to minors and thus flouting the regulations to protect children and youth from alcohol ads.

Product placement, once banned and regulated on television is now popular in music videos since this is a loophole that technology has brought about. No one is really looking into how alcohol is being shown on the internet and this has permeated to teens who now see these in an avalanche of YouTube videos they stream or download.

Big Alcohol targets our children

Alcohol marketing targeting children and youth in the social media is only the latest trend. Alcohol advertising in more traditional media has been increasing, too.

In the United States, for example, research shows that

Before graduating high school, students will spend about 18,000 hours in front of the television—more time than they will spend in school.

During this time they will watch about 2,000 alcohol commercials on television each year. Alcohol advertisements reach youth not only through television, but also through other varied media, such as billboards, magazines, sports stadium signs, and on mass transit such as subway systems. In all, youth view 45% more beer ads and 27% more liquor ads in magazines than do people of legal alcohol consumption age.”

Alcohol ads overwhelmingly seek to link alcohol use with attributes particularly important to kids, such as friendship, prestige and glamour, adventure and sex appeal or fun. The fact that that youth report alcohol ads as their favorites is revealing. A U.S. study found that 8-12 year olds could name more beer brand than U.S. Presidents. A study in the UK found that kids were more familiar with alcohol brands than with brands for candy companies. These facts are telling considering that so many different products vie for the attention of our youngest.

Celebrities pave way for Big Alcohol into hearts and minds of kids

To me, it is especially disappointing that artists like Jay Z, Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Pharrell, P Diddy or Lil Kim, Nas, Lil John, Big Boi, Ice T or Spike Lee are promoting alcohol products. Big Alcohol has been pursuing its thirst for profits ruthlessly for years, pouring in loads of money to recruit the biggest music stars, to celebrate alcohol. In an article entitled “Rhythm and Booze…” the Financial Times writes:

Alco-money flows to musicians, promoters, venues and record labels from endorsement deals and commercial partnerships. Last year the world’s largest brewer, Budweiser’s owner Anheuser-Busch InBev, took Coca-Cola’s place as the most active sponsor in the $1.4bn US music sponsorship market. Five other alcohol giants followed it in the top 10 list: Jack Daniel’s maker Brown-Forman, brewers MillerCoors and Heineken, UK multinational Diageo and US vodka distiller Fifth Generation.”

Big Alcohol’s objective is to glamorize alcohol use and to portray it as essential for everything that young people want to do and experience. And make no mistake, this is a well-thought out strategy and investment for Big Alcohol. Levels of alcohol product placement have risen rapidly. A Liverpool John Moores University study of UK top 10 hits in 2013 found that the proportion of songs mentioning alcohol or intoxication had increased from ca. 6% in 1981 to 8% in 2001. It then jumped to 18.5% in 2011. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study found that almost 25% of US chart hits between 2009 and 2011 were mentioning alcohol. And nearly 7% of them glamorized specific brands.

Most of those music superstars do have children of their own and honestly should know better than supporting the alcohol industry in targeting children and youth. It is quite clear that alcohol is a problem among artists themselves, how about children who still do not know how dangerous a drug alcohol is? How about children, who are much more easily influenced by marketing? They should instead be using their fame to build up children, not destroy them. At what cost?

[T]hese endorsements and partnerships with liquor companies do beg the question as to whether or not celebrities, particularly black celebrities, have a moral obligation to refuse advertising for (or selling) alcohol”, asked Charing Ball in Madame Noir magazine already in 2010.

Urban music – the umbrella term for music mostly originating from black artists comprising different genres such as hip-hop, R&B and rap – is extremely significant as a vehicle to target kids with alcohol glamorization. Almost 40% of urban music hits mentioned alcohol.

Black celebrities undermining their own community

It certainly has taken a very long time for Africans and African-American children to be able see black role models in business, academia, entertainment and sports. That is why I think it is especially alarming and discouraging that some of the most well-known black artists use their fame to peddle a drug.  This study shows how African-Americans are targeted by Big Alcohol to hook youth onto their products. It’s the same tactic that Big Tobacco used to get black people addicted to their product at a young age.

From a social justice perspective, I don’t think it’s fair that disadvantaged youth are being waylaid into thinking that alcohol use is hip and cool – it’s just a disease waiting to happen and brings more burden to already weighed down communities.

And make no mistake, the endorsement deals are paying off, both for the alcohol industry and for the celebrities. The Financial Times reported:

In 2002 Combs guested on the rapper Busta Rhymes’s hit single “Pass the Courvoisier Pt II”. Its success sent sales of the brandy rocketing, although neither Rhymes nor Combs were remunerated for their roles in boosting it. The lesson was learnt when he hooked up with Cîroc in 2007: he insisted on a 50-50 split of profits. Sales went from 169,000 in 2008 to more than 2m last year.”

They are just not paying off for ordinary black people. An Alcohol Justice fact sheet provides the overview:

  1. Alcohol is the most widely used drug among African-American youth and contributes to the three leading causes of death among African-American adolescents: homicide, unintentional injuries (including car crashes), and suicide.
  2. While frequent heavy alcohol use among White 18-29 year-old males decreased in a ten year period (1984-1995) the rates of heavy alcohol consumption and associated problems remained high among African-Americans in the same age group.
  3. African-American youth saw 34% more alcohol advertising in national magazines than did youth in general in 2004.

Evidence shows that youth of color in the United States disproportionately experience a variety of negative consequences caused by alcohol use. Due to the proliferation of outdoor advertising in minority neighborhoods (including massive billboards of music artists) youth of color are exposed to images of alcohol and alcohol-related behaviors in their communities on a daily basis.

  • Although African-American youth are less likely than White youth to use alcohol, evidence shows that the average number of alcohol-related problems experienced among African-American alcohol consumers was higher than among White youth who used alcohol.

The overexposure of black youth to alcohol marketing  is a result of two key phenomena:

  1. Many brands are directly targeting African-American audiences.
  2. African-American habits of media consumption make that population more vulnerable to alcohol advertising in general because of greater exposure to media.

So, instead of our children having role models that care about promoting positive and healthy lifestyles, children and youth in the US and beyond – increasingly in Africa – are bombarded with videos, TV ads, product placements, sports sponsorships and massive billboards of black musicians, actors and actresses that glamorize and normalize alcohol and its use.

Exploitation of the vulnerable for ever more profits

It is vital that black celebrities realize that their actions are leading to the downfall of future African and African-American generations. Due to this bombardment of ads, billboards, sports sponsorships and product placement in music videos and movies, according to this study black youth are inundated by alcohol promotion.

The alcohol industry is systematically targeting disadvantaged communities through advertising and access, creating an extraordinary public health problem. Despite the well-known negative health consequences, alcohol products and imagery continue to pervade African-American youth culture and communities”, write Jernigan and Samuels in the Baltimore Sun.

What is especially heartbreaking is that these celebrities do not realize or do ignore the impact of their alcohol endorsements on their own community, on the people they should help lift up and empower.

This is an outrage to me as a mother and and an African. There is no escaping this ubiquity of alcohol ads. The onus is on our governments to regulate this type of exploitation that alcohol marketing continuously exposes black people to. Banning any type of alcohol advertising is mandatory if we are to raise children who will be able to build a better, more healthy and sustainable society. It is up to the celebrities to say no to this type of cheap money making antics and use their talents properly. It’s time role models stepped up and spoke out against Big Alcohol’s exploitation of the vulnerable and marginalized.

It is also time for parents and communities to rise up and say “Alcohol Ads Must Fall”. We have a responsibility to protect our children and our future. This is a matter of social justice, socio-economic progress and empowerment.