After Prohibition was repealed in the United States in the 1930s, alcohol distillers organized a Code of Responsible Practices that governed how alcohol was to be marketed. Since then, the code has evolved to encompass every type of media including advertising on television, websites and social media. Promoting responsible drinking is explicit in the industry’s code.

Code of Responsible Practices

Many manufacturers and marketers of beer, wine and distilled spirits in the United States voluntarily commit to the Code of Responsible Practices, developed by The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the industry’s leading trade association. The code, first written in 1934, has been revised over the years to include more than 40 provisions regarding responsible and ethical content and placement of alcohol-related marketing. For example, never depicting commercial actors as intoxicated and promoting alcohol only at events where 71.6 percent of the target audiences are adults are among the code’s provisions. One provision requires alcohol ads to encourage people to drink responsibly, which is why such a suggestion is included in commercials.

Responsible Drinking Campaigns

DISCUS members funded the invention of the first breathalyzer in the 1940s. Since then, various medical studies on the health effects of alcohol as well as alcohol education programs and materials for parents, teachers and minors have been funded by the alcohol industry. The first advertising campaigns to feature messages aimed at adults about drinking responsibly appeared in print advertisements for alcohol in the 1970s, according to DISCUS.

Federal Requirements

No federal laws govern how alcohol can be advertised except within the context of other federal broadcasting and advertising laws. For example, an alcohol advertisement would be against the law if it included blatant racism or pornography or if it promoted driving under the influence or underage drinking. Federal law prohibits ads from including anything that it defines as obscenity or inciting illegal actions. The alcohol industry’s self-governance regarding rules and ethics in advertising generally stay in alignment with federal regulations.

Ad Critics

Critics of alcohol advertising want government to step in. For example, Alcohol Justice, an alcohol industry watchdog group, believes the industry is ineffective in policing its own marketing policies and messages. In May 2012, the group claimed a study of its own found that suggestions to "drink responsibly" do nothing to curb alcohol-related problems. Alcohol Justice has also called for higher alcohol taxation, regulation of sales, and government restriction of alcohol marketing.