Korean teenagers grow up watching sporting heroes like Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung and figure skating champion Kim Yu-na pitch beer in TV commercials. Boy and girl bands like Big Bang and Uee, whose members are only in their early 20s, also flog beer on TV.
Ads for soju have long been dominated by female stars like Lee Hyo-ri, Kim Tae-hee, Lee Min-jung and Baek Ji-young. One of the most frequent topics of discussion on TV talk shows, which are hugely popular among teens, is how much alcohol a celebrity can handle. Korea, in fact, is the only country in the world where top athletes and entertainers jostle for a chance to appear in a liquor ad.
The 16 liquor companies in Korea voluntarily agreed in 2010 to refrain from risqué images or featuring teens in their advertising. But other than printing in small letters on the corner of their labels the warning "Excessive drinking is hazardous to your health," they continue to hire top athletes and entertainers to endorse their products.
According to a 2010 study by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 51.9 percent of teens had drunk alcohol, and the first time was at on average at the age of 13.6. Teens are easily affected by ads or commercials, and they watch their favorite athletes or entertainers turn to the bottle when they are happy or sad. This reduces their wariness of alcohol and leads them to treat it like a soft drink.
France and Germany have banned liquor ads on TV, and companies that make alcoholic beverages are prohibited from sponsoring cultural events or sports matches. In the U.S., ads cannot depict people actually drinking beer, and cartoon characters that are popular among kids cannot be used to sell liquor. Sweden has also banned liquor ads on TV and only allows them in the print media for products that are less than 15 proof.
Korean authorities have banned ads for liquor more than 17 proof, and TV commercials for products with a lower alcohol content can be shown only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. That is not enough. Korea too should completely stop commercials that entice teenagers to drink, so that the country can shake of its notoriety as a nation of drunks. Public transportation and facilities frequented by teens should be off limits for liquor ads too, and celebrities should stay away from liquor ads.