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Unmasking Alcohol Manipulators: Critical Thinking Lesson Plans to Subvert Alcohol Advertisers

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The alcohol industry, much like the tobacco industry, has been under scrutiny for advertising strategies that target young and underage adults, whether intentionally or unintentionally. President Nixon signed legislation on April 1, 1970, that banned cigarette ads on television and radio (which took effect on January 1, 1971, when the last cigarette ad ran at 11:50 p.m. on The Johnny Carson Show), with increasing legislative action that further tightened the reigns on tobacco advertising in the following decades.

In 2010, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration took action to “severely restrict the way the tobacco industry can advertise and sell cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products, especially marketing efforts designed to appeal to children and teenagers.” The alcohol industry, while also under fire for ads that appeal to children and teens, doesn’t face the same stringent legislation despite ample research pointing to dangers associated with underage alcohol use and use.

That’s not to say there are no regulations that aim to control alcohol advertising; there are, along with self-regulated best practices implemented by industry associations to encourage responsible advertising. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) explains, “Congress has not enacted any law prohibiting broadcast advertising of any kind of alcoholic beverage, and the FCC does not have a rule or policy regulating such advertisements.”

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In other words, the alcohol industry still retains an ability to reach young people with advertisements that portray alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits, in a way that appeals to children, adolescents, and young adults. Presently, the most effective way to combat the potential influence of alcohol advertising on children and teens is through comprehensive education aimed at prevention.

We’ve created this comprehensive guide with lesson plans that enable educators to empower children and young adults with the critical thinking skills necessary to subvert alcohol advertisers and avoid the potentially devastating influence of these ads on young people’s decision to consume alcohol while underage or irresponsibly after reaching the legal age of consumption, currently 21 years old in the United States.

What You’ll Find in This Guide:

  • Resources on Advertising and Marketing Codes and Research
  • Lesson Plans for Grades K-4
  • Lesson Plans for Grades 5-8
  • Lesson Plans for Grades 9-12
  • Further Reading and Resources for Educators

Resources on Advertising and Marketing Codes and Research

This section includes resources and information on advertising and marketing codes in the alcohol industry, professional associations, and government agencies responsible for monitoring and regulating the industry, and other essential background information.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) periodically reports on self-regulation in alcohol marketing. The most recent report is from 2014. According to the FTC, “The report explains where alcohol suppliers spend their promotional dollars, provides data on compliance with the industry’s advertising placement standard, discusses the status of external review of advertising complaints, and provides information about the Commission’s education program to reduce teen access to alcohol.”

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, explains prohibited advertising practices and the methods used to monitor alcohol advertisements.

Alcohol industry associations generally create standard best practices for advertising, per the FTC’s self-regulation approach to advertising in the alcohol industry. The following organizations create best practices for their respective industries:

  • The Beer Institute has an Advertising & Marketing Code outlining best practices for creating communications that reflect responsible corporate citizenship and oppose the misuse and use of their products.
  • The Distilled Spirits Council’s Code of Responsible Practices outlines expectations which embody “the high standards and commitment to the responsibility that has been the touchstone of DISCUS member company advertising practices.”
  • The Wine Institute’s Code of Advertising Standards provides standards reflecting the “responsible content and placement of all communications concerning our wines.”

The Federal Trade Commission operates the We Don’t Serve Teens website, which provides tools and information to help parents and other adults reduce teen drinking rates and the dangerous outcomes associated with underage alcohol consumption. Part of this project is a compilation of Alcohol Laws by State.

Lesson Plans for Grades K-4

This section provides lesson plans, classroom activities, and resources suitable for students in grades K through 4.

Media Messages and Healthy Choices

This lesson is suitable for children in grades K through 2. A solid introduction to media literacy for this age group, this exercise asks students to discuss media influences on health and create positive messages about healthy choices. Not specifically focused on alcohol, teachers may choose to focus the discussion on alcohol messages in the media or use a general media discussion as an introduction to the concept of advertising influencing choices about alcohol use.

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Source: Learning to Give

Media Literacy

Students in grades 3 through 5 will develop media literacy with this lesson, in which learners will “observe and discuss advertisements for tobacco and alcohol. They identify how advertisers place information in strategic spots and make their product look good. They choose an ad and fill out the attached form on media literacy.”

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Source: Lesson Planet

Kids, Alcohol and Advertising – Lesson 1: Messages About Drinking

In this lesson, suitable for students in grades 4 through 8, students “look at the different groups in our society that deliver messages to the public about drinking and consider the influence of each of these groups on the attitudes and perceptions of young people.” Media Smarts is Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, so teachers may want to modify portions of this lesson for relevance to U.S. information and/or national or state academic standards, though most of the information included in this resource is applicable.

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“He Shoots, He Scores”: Alcohol Advertising and Sports

Suitable for students in grades 4 through 6, this lesson provides students with an opportunity to examine the ways that companies use sponsorships of sporting events to sell products and how alcohol advertisements feature prominent sports figures.

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Source: Media Smarts

Kids, Alcohol, and Advertising – Messages About Drinking

This lesson is relevant for students in grades 4 through 8. “Students examine different groups in our society that deliver messages to the public about drinking and consider the influence of each of these groups on the attitudes and perceptions of young people.”

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Source: Media Smarts

Lesson Plans for Grades 5-8

This section provides lesson plans, classroom activities, and resources suitable for students in grades 5 through 8.

Assessing Media’s Influence

This lesson plan from PE Central helps students in grades 6 to 12 understand how media influences their decisions on using or abusing drugs and alcohol. Students find media (a song, news clip, article, documentary, etc.) on how the media influences opinions or shapes societal views on different types of drugs or alcohol.

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Source: PE Central

Project ALERT

This resource is a model template for educators in the state of Delaware designed to meet state academic standards, is designed for students in grades 6 through 8, and encompasses three lessons. In this unit, students analyze the influence of family, peers, the media, technology, and other factors on health behavior with a focus on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

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Source: Delaware Department of Education

Full Circle Advertising: A Look at Teen Alcohol Use and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

In this lesson, suitable for students in grades 7 through 12 and ideal as part of a drug and alcohol unit in biology class, introduces students to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a consequence of alcohol dependence. Additionally, students investigate alcohol advertisements and evaluate the impact advertisements have on their behavior. Students then have the opportunity to develop their own advertisements aiming to prevent FAS using what they have learned.

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Who’s on First? Alcohol Advertising and Sports

This lesson is designed for students in grades 6 through 8. Students will examine how alcohol companies utilize sponsorships – specifically, sports sponsorships, as this lesson is tied to the physical education curriculum – to promote their products. Students complete a survey, analyze results, and research the sports sponsorship portfolios of five different beer companies.

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Source: Media Smarts

Truth and Advertising

This lesson is suitable for students in grades 5 through 12. “Students view and analyze fragments of advertising images from magazines to become familiar with different techniques used to sell products, write captions for advertisements, and create their own advertisements from scratch based on the concept of truth in advertising.” While not specifically focused on alcohol advertisements, teachers can easily modify this lesson by restricting advertising images for analysis to those focused on alcoholic beverages.

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Source: Lesson Planet

On the Market: Thinking Critically About Advertising

This lesson could be utilized with different age groups with some modification. In this exercise, students think critically about how food and beverage marketers blur the line between advertising and entertainment in order to engage young consumers and the potential consequences of this influential practice when it promotes foods and beverages that aren’t healthy or safe for children and adolescents.

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Source: The New York Times – The Learning Network

Lesson Plans for Grades 9-12

This section provides lesson plans, classroom activities, and resources suitable for students in grades 9 through 12.

Persuasive Techniques in Advertising

Designed for students in grades 9 through 12, this in-depth lesson covers seven 50-minute sessions plus additional time for students to produce commercials. In this lesson, students will examine three persuasive advertising techniques and analyze existing advertisements for the use of these techniques. To culminate this unit, students have the opportunity to create their own advertisements. While not specifically designed to examine persuasive alcohol advertising, this lesson is easily modified for an alcohol focus.

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Substances as Stress Relievers: Deconstructing Advertisements

This lesson is ideal for students in grades 9 through 12, although it may also prove useful for students in grades 7 or 8. In this lesson, students examine several print advertisements (provided in the lesson materials) and evaluate how various products are offered as antidotes to stressful situations, think critically about the ability of any product to solve problems or eliminate stress, and question the profit-making motives of advertisers.

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Source: Media Education Foundation

Ad Hangover?

This lesson may be used with students in grades 7 through 12. A simple lesson that can be utilized to complement a larger unit or lesson on alcohol advertising, this exercise asks students to read an article about alcohol marketing and respond to an eight-question, short-answer questionnaire.

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Source: Lesson Planet

Advertising and Healthy Decisions

This unit, designed for students in grades 9 through 12, spans 14 days and offers an engaging experience for students. Students are asked to analyze alcohol and tobacco ads and then create parodies of them. “The eight lessons in this unit include discussions about why teens smoke or drink, the psychology behind the advertising, and writing persuasive letters to agencies, companies, or entities asking them to take action promoting health.”

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Source: Lesson Planet


This interactive lesson proves enjoyable and relevant for students in grades 6 through 12. In this exercise, students evaluate advertisements for various alcohol products, watch a video, answer discussion questions, and create a collage featuring alcohol advertisements with rewritten captions that they create.

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Source: Lesson Planet

In the Mix

This lesson, designed for students in grades 7 through 12, encompasses two 50-minute class periods and a homework assignment. “Groups of students will compose a collage of alcohol ads and caption them according to what they believe the “real message” is. They will explain their collage and caption rationale to the class. Discussion will follow the presentations as to the targeted age group and messages the media attempts to portray. Students will then redo their captions with alcohol facts mentioned in the video, but not intimated in the advertising.”

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Source: In the Mix

Further Reading and Resources for Educators

This section provides additional resources for educators to supplement lesson plans and activities, investigate the latest regulations and statistics, and build unique lesson plans and classroom activities based on the most up-to-date data and research available.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau provides information on alcohol labeling and advertising, including regulations that are written to “prevent the deception of the consumer and provide them with ‘adequate information’ as to the identity and quality of the product, to prohibit false or misleading statements, and to provide information as to the alcohol content of the product.” provides a comprehensive resources section with links to a variety of regulatory agencies, public service groups, and other resources aimed at reducing underage drinking and drug use.

The Media Education Foundation offers an abundance of resources for educators including documentaries, study guides, and other valuable information educators can utilize in their classrooms to supplement lesson plans focused on the impacts of media and advertising on alcohol and drug consumption. Handouts and articles, such as this document on Deconstructing an Alcohol Advertisement, will also prove useful for educators as well as community organizations aiming to reduce alcohol consumption and drug use among young people.

Alcohol Awareness Web provides a list of more than 600 lesson plans and resources for educators to implement instructional activities related to alcohol use, the dangers of underage drinking and alcohol use, and the impact of alcohol advertising on children and teens.

Media educator Frank Baker provides a number of resources related to alcohol and the media, including links to lesson plans and articles with information on deconstructing alcohol advertisements. While some areas of this website are somewhat outdated and contain several broken links, there are some valuable resources to be found here to supplement your instruction. The Media Literacy Clearinghouse contains many instructional activities and lesson plans for empowering students with the knowledge and skills to decode persuasive media messages.

Teen Health and the Media offers an abundance of resources related to the media’s influence over today’s adolescents and young adults. Find fact sheets, valuable websites, videos, and magazines to support your classroom instruction.

AdMedia’s Media Awareness: A School Guide provides a comprehensive overview of the media’s exploitation of today’s youth, plus a selection of useful lesson plans, units, and activities for educators.

The National Council of Teachers of English offers a selection of lesson plans, further reading, and other resources on media literacy education.

The Center for Media Literacy provides guidance for educators on how to teach media literacy to today’s youth. The Center’s website notes, “Media literacy connects the curriculum of the classroom with the curriculum of the living room. Making these connections requires an educationally sound framework and structure — while leaving room for open-ended inquiry and the excitement of discovery.”

EdSelect is another excellent source of information on media literacy education. With the selection of a comprehensive resource including links to lesson plans and lesson plan databases related to media literacy, workshops, guides for educators, and more, EdSelect is a valuable addition to today’s educator toolkit.

Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Critical Media Literacy Pedagogy is a comprehensive report reviewing current literature and research into media literacy, offering a framework and examples for critical media literacy pedagogy.