There are currently no restrictions on alcohol advertising in the country, which has seen a rise in underage drinkers and an increase in the number of South Korean women who drink, up from 41.5% in 2007 to 50.5% in 2017.
In contrast, the percentage of male drinkers increased to 74% in 2017 from 73.5% a decade earlier, over the same period.
Experts have told The South China Morning Post that they blame this “tremendous increase” in women drinkers to the rise in female celebrities appearing in alcohol advertising.
In 2014, K-pop star IU became the face of Chamisul soju at the age of 21, while actress and television presenter Lee Hyori was the face of Lotte Liquor’s Chumchurum. Irene of K-pop girl group Red Velvet replaced IU as Chamisul’s main model in 2018.
These celebrities are reported to earn up to 20 billion won (US$16.8 million) a year to appear in the advertising campaigns for the alcohol brands they represent.
The South Korean government has tried to fight this. Lawmakers tried and failed to revive an amendment to the National Health Promotion Law that was first proposed in 2012, which would have banned celebrities under the age of 24 from appearing in alcohol ads.
The government’s efforts are hampered by more money being spent on smoking prevention in the country. It spent more than 138.8 billion won (US$116.6 million) in 2019, more than 10 times the 1.3 billion won reserved for anti-alcohol campaigns.
Experts say this is because anti-smoking campaigns are funded from taxes on tobacco products, while anti-alcohol campaigns have to rely “solely on government funds.
In the UK, alcohol brands have been warned that they must be ready to face potential court action for conveying irresponsible messages to consumers through advertising, including the inadvertent targeting of underage drinkers.