Alcohol and Advertising

By Maia Szalavitz
STATS Senior Fellow
Updated Oct 21, 2005

Every so often, controversy arises over a particular ad that appears to encourage children to drink alcohol. Anti-alcohol advocacy groups - notably the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), and the Center on Alcohol Advertising - are often involved in these controversies with reports on what they see as egregious ads or trends.

Probably the best known example was a 1996 survey by the Center on Alcohol Advertising which showed that the Budweiser frogs were recognized by almost as many kids as Bugs Bunny a year after they were introduced.Such findings would appear to bolster calls for a crackdown on the way that alcohol is marketed; yet research on the effects of alcohol advertising on youth has not shown that advertising has much of an impact on teen drinking.

At least, this is the conclusion reached by a number of reviews of evidence, including the 10th Special Report to Congress on Alcohol and Health by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in June 2000. Nevertheless, the multitude of factors involved in trying to measure the effect of advertising on alcohol consumption makes this a complex and difficult issue to study. Despite the large body of research available, the data is often contradictory and confusing.

In order to know where current research stands and how to make sense of the problem, it is helpful to break down the different types of research as follows (This is the approach taken by the NIAAA study):

Experimental Research in Controlled Settings: The highest standard of evidence and the only one that can definitively show cause and effect.
Survey Research: Research based on analyzing people's responses to polls and questionnaires; for example, studying whether people who prefer alcohol advertising to other sorts of commercials also drink more.
Econometric Studies: This approach typically uses regression analysis to look at the relative impact of potential causal variables; in this case, they look at consumption in relation to advertising spending or restrictions.
Studies on "Media Literacy": Interventions aimed at making people more resistant to and skeptical of claims made by advertising.

Additionally, it is important to examine some new and related issues:

Malternatives: Activists have complained that the introduction and marketing of "flavored malt beverages" or alco-pops has spurred teen drinking.
Minority Youth and Alcohol: There are concerns that minority youth receive a disproportionate amount of alcohol advertising.
Counter-Advertising: Ads that warn about drinking, rather than promote it, can either be startlingly effective or a complete waste of time.
Price and Point of Sale Promotions: Youth are especially sensitive to discounts and point of sale promotions.

Experimental Research
The experimental research on exposure to alcohol advertising has found either no effect or a small, short-lasting effect on attitudes towards drinking. However, these experimental studies all share a major flaw: They looked at attitudes towards alcohol following exposure to alcohol advertising (as seen on TV in a reel of other commercials, or in magazines); but they did not measure actual drinking behavior.

Though attitudes towards alcohol and drinking often correlate, this correlation is not absolute. To take an extreme example, an alcoholic may have highly negative attitudes towards alcohol and still drink heavily. Similarly, teenagers may feel inhibited about expressing positive beliefs about drinking, to adults, because it is illegal for people their age. Experimental studies also cannot account for the effects of exposure to thousands of ads in varying media over a lifetime.

A study typical of the research in this area footnote icon exposed groups of fifth and eighth grade students, who identified themselves as non-drinkers, to one of three conditions. One group saw commercials that included five beer ads; a second group saw commercials that included two anti-drinking public service announcements (PSAs); and a third group saw both the beer ads and the anti-drinking PSAs. The control group saw only soft drink commercials placed among other advertising. Although the students remembered the relevant commercials, neither the beer ads nor the PSAs had any effect on their responses to a survey about the putative positive effects of drinking (i.e., greater social acceptance, success with the opposite sex, etc.).

Survey studies
Surveys in alcohol advertising research typically poll people about their attitudes towards alcohol ads and drinking and then look for connections between such variables. In this body of research, several studies have linked an increased "liking" of alcohol ads to an increased intention to drink.

One study surveyed 500 New Zealanders aged 10-17 about their responses to beer commercial footnote icon. The more the kids said they liked the ads, the more often they said they intended to drink at age 20. However, the correlation between liking alcohol ads and actual drinking behavior was not great enough to be statistically significant. Other survey research found that the more teens judged as being at high risk for alcohol problems identified with the situations in the alcohol ads, the more likely they were to think positively about drinking.

While the survey research consistently shows that advertising has, at most, a small effect on teen drinking and a greater effect on teen attitudes about drinking, it cannot show cause and effect. As a result, it is hard to know what is really happening. For instance, while advertising may make alcohol attractive to some teens, they could just as easily enjoy or be attracted to alcohol advertising because they already hold positive attitudes towards drinking.

In other words, the fact that teens who like alcohol ads are more likely to want to drink may simply reflect their pre-existing attitudes, rather than show an effect of the commercials. And the fact that the effect on behavior is much smaller than that on attitudes again shows that one cannot rely on attitudes alone to measure the real world effects of ads.

Econometric Analysis
Econometric analysis looks at how alcohol advertising affects other alcohol-related variables such as consumption rates, alcohol abuse rates and drunk driving casualties. Most of the research in this area has found that advertising has no effect on such variables footnote icon.

However, some econometric analyses have found effects: A 1997 study looked at the relationship between automobile fatalities and the amount of alcohol advertising in the top 75 American media markets footnote icon. It found a correlation between alcohol advertising and both total and nighttime crash deaths (the latter are particularly likely to be alcohol-linked). The study concluded that a total ban on alcohol advertising might save 5,000 to 10,000 lives a year. Since the number of alcohol-related auto fatalities has totaled about 17,000 annually since 1995, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and since the study's findings are not consistent with the rest of the literature, such figures probably overestimate the impact of a total advertising ban.

Curiously, this study found that the effect on drunk driving deaths was concentrated among adults. Advertising did not seem to affect drunken driving rates among youths. This may be because drunk driving deaths among youths are already account for a much smaller proportion of crashes than they do among adults. This may reflect the greater role played by inexperience in crashes caused by young drivers or, possibly, the impact of prevention efforts.

For example education could have already deterred the most easily affected youth and left a core group that is much harder to influence (About 40% of crash deaths caused by adult drivers are alcohol-related; for youths, the proportion is about 20%) footnote icon .

Another econometric analysis that found connections between youth drinking and advertising was published as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research in May 2003. It looked for correlations between data from two major national youth surveys: Monitoring the Future (which samples 63,000 high school students) and The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Behavior conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and alcohol advertising in local markets as compiled by Competitive Media Reporting. The data used were from the years 1996-98. The study concluded that eliminating alcohol advertising completely would reduce the proportion of adolescents who drink each month from 25% to 21%. More significantly, the study claimed that a total ad ban would reduce the population of teen binge drinkers from 12% of adolescents to seven percent.

An international study footnote icon also supported the idea that advertising restrictions can help. It looked at alcohol abuse in 17 different countries. The research examined the connection between restrictions on TV and radio advertising and both consumption rates and driving fatalities. The study found that alcohol consumption was lowered by 16% and traffic deaths by 10% in countries with the greatest restrictions on TV and radio ads. But this relationship was confounded by the fact that the countries that adopted such advertising restrictions started out with lower rates of alcohol problems and deeper anti-alcohol attitudes among their populations.

And studies of advertising bans carried out in the real world have shown that they have little or nor impact on consumption. For example, research on three different provinces of Canada - British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan - that banned alcohol ads at three different times did not find reductions in drinking footnote icon. It is possible, however, that these results were contaminated by exposure to alcohol ads on American television, which remained during the Canadian bans.

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