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Promoting Alcohol and Tobacco by Advertising to High School Students

It’s getting more difficult for companies to advertise tobacco and alcohol products. Tobacco ads are no longer permitted on television.(1) On websites and YouTube, age verification is required to view content purportedly targeting an adult audience.

The tobacco industry has a long history of marketing to young people. The goal is to get people addicted at a young age to become life-long customers. Also, young people are more susceptible to peer pressure and are much less risk averse. So they are an easier target. Adults are better informed. They know the adverse health effects of tobacco, are more risk averse, and may even know someone negatively impacted by tobacco.

I recently subscribed to Wired magazine with their print and digital access offer. As I was looking through the July/August 2019 magazine, I was surprised to see expensive full-page ads for tobacco products, vaping, and hard alcohol.(2) The thought that immediately came into my mind was that Wired magazine must reach a young audience. You’re not going to see ads for chewing tobacco or cigarettes in “Senior Living Today Magazine” or even publications reaching a middle age audience. Nobody at age 32 is waking up in the morning thinking, “Maybe I’ll get addicted to cigarettes today.” It’s young people who are likely to try cigarettes.

I tracked down a Wired magazine media kit from 2017.(3) Their readership reaches millions of people, and included in their largest demographic are high school seniors. They cut off their reported market data at 18 years old, but presumably there isn’t a steep cliff but a rounded curve at that age group. The magazine obviously has an audience of any kids interested in the tech and maker community, and that probably reaches to middle school students.

On page 14 of the media kit, the Wired Media Group touts the ability to reach ‘young’ people stating their audience is “3X more likely to be in the young… segment.” This undoubtedly gets the interest of tobacco companies.

Page 21 shares the cost of advertising in Wired magazine. It’s about $150,000 for a single page ad. Advertisers don’t spend that kind of money unless there’s a significant return on their investment.

One of the ads in the Jul/Aug magazine is for Hornitos tequila and it’s a thinly veiled adaptation of the Apple “Think Different” campaign from 1997-2002. [Video | Wikipedia] The tequila ad states: “Here’s to the shot takers. The rule breakers…. The makers…” and the list goes on. Those familiar with the Apple campaign will likely see the similarity immediately. A younger generation will see alcohol as cool and something that makers and rule breakers should embrace.

Other ads in the magazine include products like chewing tobacco, vaping, and cigarettes.

I’m not a prude. I really don’t care what people do as long as they aren’t significantly harming themselves or harming others. Adults are free to choose how much or little damage they’d like to inflict on their health in exchange for some perceived pleasure. The reason for this article is simply to point out the creative ways that companies can advertise their products and circumvent regulations. It shows ingenuity and tenacity. It’s an interesting case study in the complexities and limitations of government regulation. Despite the societal pressures, companies seem to always find innovative ways to dump toxic waste, pollute the air, contaminate ground water, sell banned pharmaceuticals to other countries, and advertise cigarettes to children. It’s really quite remarkable.


(1) “Studs Terkel discusses television and advertising with Nicholas Johnson of the FCC,” 3 Aug 1970, starting at 2m 45s. Learn more about Nicholas Johnson at NicholasJohnson.org

(2) Wired Magazine, Jul/Aug 2019. This is a PDF of the cover and selected ads from the publication used for non-commercial, education and social commentary purposes.

(3) Wired Magazine Media Kit, 2017. This is a PDF provided by the Wired Media Group made available to the public and advertisers to provide information about their reach and impact.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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