Have you ever counted how many times you’ve seen drinking depicted as cool, exciting, and a rite of passage in movies, social media, and on television? Imagine being a teen and seeing this. The power that advertising and representation has on us is astounding, and our youth are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing and they might not be thinking logically about their decisions.
We know that parents and peers have a large impact on youth decisions to drink, but research clearly indicates that alcohol advertising and marketing also have a significant effect by influencing youth expectations and attitudes, and helping to create an environment that promotes and glorifies underage drinking.
Children are exposed to alcohol marketing via social media, videos, television, magazines, and radio. The alcohol industry pours millions of advertising dollars into media trying to influence children’s choices and win their loyalty. They use digital and social media effectively and blur the lines between advertising and content. Alcohol brands also sponsor events, organizations, and causes to get their names in front of the public, including youth.
Example of a beer ad targeted to youth.
There are many longitudinal studies that link youth exposure to alcohol advertising to the likelihood that kids will begin drinking early or, if they have already started drinking, drink more. Early-onset drinking can cause problems not only while they are teens, but also later in life. Discussing the dangers of underage drinking with your middle-school age or younger children is one step you can take in protecting them from the pressures and expectations of drinking.
The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is a watchdog of the alcohol industry and its advertising practices. What their research has found clearly illustrates the power of the alcohol industry over youth’s perception of underage drinking.
How Much Alcohol Advertising Reaches Youth?
CAMY has found that:
- Between 2001 and 2005, youth exposure to alcohol advertising on television in the U.S. increased by 41%. Much of this increase resulted from the rise in distilled spirits advertising on television from 1,973 ads in 2001 to 46,854 ads in 2005.
- In a sample of radio advertising for the 25 leading alcohol brands in the summer of 2004, more than two-thirds of youth exposure to alcohol advertising came from ads placed on youth-oriented programming, defined as programming with youth audiences larger than the population of youth ages 12 to 20 in the local market.
- From 2001 though 2003, youth in the United States were 96 times more likely per capita to see an ad promoting alcohol than an industry ad discouraging underage drinking. In fact, compared to underage youth, adults age 21 and over were nearly twice as likely per capita to see advertising discouraging underage drinking.
- A study of alcohol advertising in magazines from 1997 to 2001 found that the number of beer and distilled spirits ads tended to increase with a magazine’s youth readership. For every 1 million underage readers ages 12-19 in a magazine, researchers found 1.6 times more beer advertisements and 1.3 times more distilled spirits advertisements.
Alcohol advertisement using a comic book character to attract youth.
How Effective is Alcohol Advertising?
Research has found that we have a good reason to be upset by alcohol marketing. One study found that for each dollar the alcohol industry spends on youth advertising, young people drink 3 percent more each month. Each advertisement viewed by the 1,872 teens surveyed resulted in a 1 percent increase in the number of drinks consumed that month.
Young people in markets where there is a saturation of alcohol advertising tend to keep increasing their drinking over time to the point that they consume an average of 50 drinks per month by age 25. The bottom line is, the more advertising young people see, the more they drink.
Advertising Features Youth-Targeted Beverages
CAMY researchers found that many of the ads placed in magazines with a high youth readership and on radio formats that appeal to ages 12 to 20 are for beverages that appeal to young drinkers. Drinks known as low-alcohol refreshers and “malternatives” are advertised specifically in the youth market.
A five-year study of magazine advertising found that 23.1 percent of ads for adult alcoholic beverages appeared in magazines with high youth readership, and almost double that number (42.9 percent) of ads for youth alcoholic beverages were placed in the same magazines.
Youth Radio Stations Targeted
Another study of radio advertising found that young people age 12 to 20 heard 8 percent more beer and ale advertising and 12 percent more “malternative” advertising than adults. Surprisingly, youth heard 14 percent more ads for distilled spirits or hard liquor.
The study found that 73 percent of alcohol radio advertising was placed on stations with Rhythmic Contemporary Hit, Pop Contemporary Hit, Urban Contemporary, and Alternative formats, the type of music that attracts a disproportionately large listening audience of 12- to 20-year-olds.
Specific Youth Groups Targeted
Other studies have found that alcohol ads are targeted at specific groups deemed more likely to be vulnerable to the advertising message. Researchers found that magazine ads targeted girls more than boys with ads for beer and ale, distilled spirits, and low-alcohol refreshers.
Black youth is another group targeted by the alcohol industry. A CAMY study found that black teens were exposed to 32 percent more ads in magazines, 17 percent more on television, and 20 percent more distilled spirits ads on the radio. The study found that black and Hispanic communities were particularly overexposed to radio advertising. Hispanic youth heard 34 percent more beer and ale ads on the radio than Hispanic adults.
Evidence from Long-Term Studies
- A national study published in January 2006 concluded that greater exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to an increase in drinking among underage youth. Specifically, for each additional ad a young person saw (above the monthly youth average of 23), he or she drank 1% more.
- Another study found that, among a group of 2,250 middle-school students in Los Angeles, those who viewed more television programs containing alcohol commercials while in the seventh grade were more likely in the eighth grade to drink beer, wine/liquor, or to drink three or more drinks on at least one occasion during the month prior to the follow-up survey.
- Researchers followed 3,111 students in South Dakota from seventh to ninth grade, and found that exposure to in-store beer displays in grade 7 predicted onset of drinking by grade 9, and exposure to magazine advertising for alcohol and to beer concessions at sports or music events predicted frequency of drinking in grade 9.
- Researchers from Dartmouth Medical School followed more than 5,000 Vermont and New Hampshire students ages 10 to 14 from 13 to 26 months, and found that those with higher exposure to movie alcohol use at the initial assessment were more likely to have started drinking at time of follow-up. They also found depictions of alcohol use in 92% of 601 contemporary movies, including in 52% of G-rated films.
How Alcohol Advertising Attracts and Influences Young People
A study on the responses of young people to alcohol advertising found that underage youth are drawn to music, animal and people characters, story and humor in alcohol advertising. Ads that were liked by youth in the study were more likely to elicit responses from youth saying they wanted to purchase the brand and products advertised. The three most popular alcohol ads among youth in the study used animal characters as the leading actors.
Example of a beer ad next to an ad for a cartoon movie, targeted towards kids.
A review of the neuroscience, psychology and marketing literatures concluded that adolescents, because of how the human brain develops, may be particularly attracted to branded products such as alcohol that are associated with risky behavior and that provide, in their view, immediate gratification, thrills and/or social status.
Exposure to alcohol advertising also shapes attitudes and perceptions about alcohol use among both young people (defined in this study as ages 15-20) and young adults (ages 21 to 29). However, these attitudes and perceptions predict young people’s positive expectancies and intentions to drink, but not those of young adults.
What Teens and Others Think About Alcohol Advertising and Youth
A USA Today survey found that teens say ads have a greater influence on their desire to drink in general than on their desire to buy a particular brand of alcohol. Eighty percent of general public respondents in a poll by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms believed “that alcohol advertising influences youth to drink alcoholic beverages.”
Another poll, done for an alcohol-industry-funded organization called the Century Council, found that 73% of the public believes that “alcohol advertising is a major contributor to underage drinking.”
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) recognizes the influence advertising can have on youth: “[T]he impact of advertising on radio and television audiences, particularly kids, cannot be overstated. Clever jingles, flashy lights, fast talking, and quick pacing, all contribute to the message of commercials.”
In today’s culture, parents trying to prevent their children from underage drinking not only have to worry about peer pressure but also about pressure from the alcohol industry which is pouring millions into advertising into media that attracts young people. This is why it is so important to talk with your child about underage drinking. Emphasize that it’s okay to say no to peer pressure, that alcohol ads are not representative of reality, and encourage them to call you if they get into an unsafe situation.
For more information on underage and binge drinking, including how to talk to your child, visit Ventura County Limits.
- How Teens Are Influenced by Alcohol Advertising (VeryWellFamily.com)
- Alcohol Advertising and Youth (CAMY.org)