Effects of Alcohol Advertising on Drinking: Scientific Evidence

What are the effects of alcohol advertising on consumption and abuse? The answer if found in scientific research and evidence.

Overview

I.   Alcohol Drinking & Abuse

II.  Effects of Alcohol Ads

III. A Function of Advertising

IV.  Parental Influence

V.   Summary

I. Alcohol Drinking & Abuse

Advertising increases alcohol consumption, which increases alcohol abuse… right? Wrong. There is no solid evidence that this theory of the effects of alcohol advertising is correct.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

The FTC reported “no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse.” 1

U.S. Senate
effects of alcohol advertising

Alcohol advertising is not new.

A United States Senate subcommittee reported in the Congressional Record  on the effects of alcohol advertising. It could not find evidence to conclude that advertising influences non-drinkers to begin drinking or to increase consumption. 2

HHS

The United States Department of Health and Human Services analyzed the matter. In its report to Congress it concluded that there is no significant relationship between alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption. It did not recommend banning or imposing additional restrictions on advertising. 3

Other Research

A University of Texas study on the effects of alcohol advertising covered a 21-year period. The amount of money spent on alcohol ads had little relationship with total consumption in the population. 4

Studies in Canada and the US find no significant link between restrictions on advertising and alcohol consumption. 5

Alcohol advertising expenditures have increased in the U.S. But during which time alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined sharply. 6

The founding Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism studied the issue. “There is not a single study that credibly connects advertising with an increase in alcohol use or abuse.” 7

There was no alcohol advertising during Prohibition. Yet alcohol  consumption remained very high.
Review of Evidence

A definitive review of research from around the world analyzed the effects of alcohol advertising. It found that advertising has virtually no effect on consumption. And that it has no impact whatsoever on either experimentation with alcohol or its abuse. 8 This is consistent with other reviews of the research. 9

Advertising does not increase overall consumption. For example, after New  Zealand permitted alcohol brand advertising, ads increased but consumption decreased. 10

II. Effects of Alcohol Advertising

If advertising doesn’t increase consumption, why bother to advertise? The answer is simple: to increase market share.

Scenario 1: Increase in Total Market
Total beer market sales $50,000,000,000
Brand X’s 10% share of market $5,000,000,000
Total market grows by one percent to… $50,500,000,000
Brand X’s 10% share is now… $5,050,000,000

12

Scenario 2: Increase in Market Share
Total beer market remains stable $50,000,000,000
Brand X’s 10% market share increases one percent $400,000,000
Brand X’s 11% market share $5,500,000,000

12

Alcohol is a “mature” product category. Consumers are already aware of the product and its basic characteristics. Therefore,  advertising specific brands doesn’t really effect overall consumption. 11

What Alcohol Advertising Does

Advertisers don’t try to increase total consumption. Their goal is to get consumers to switch to their brand and create brand loyalty. Thus, effective advertisers gain market share at the expense of others, who lose market share. They do not try to increase the total market for the product. An example can illustrate why they don’t.

The total retail value of beer produced annually in the U.S. is about $50 billion. If a producer’s advertising campaign increases its market share by one percent, its sales would increase by $500 million. However, if the total market for beer increased by one percent, a brand with a 10% share of the market would only have a sales increase of $50 million.

Clearly, a producer has a great incentive to increase market share. But it has little incentive (or ability) to increase the total market. For this reason, advertisers focus their efforts on established consumers. They seek to strengthen the loyalty of their own consumers and induce other consumers to try their brand.

Young People & Commercials

Many young people have greater recognition of some alcohol beverage labels than of former US presidents. 13 Reports about this make great press but what does it all mean? Probably nothing because there is no evidence that such recognition leads to experimentation, consumption, or abuse. 14

Similarly, most adults are probably better at identifying popular entertainers than of many former presidents of the US. That probably doesn’t mean much either.effects of alcohol advertising

By the way, can you identify these presidents?

The answers are at the bottom of the page.

Hope you identified the presidents correctly. But if you didn’t, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean that you’ve been seeing too many alcohol beverage commercials.

A Flood of Commercials

A widely reported “fact” is that by the age of 18, the young people will have seen 100,000 beer commercials. However, to see that many, a person would have to view television for about 161,290 hours or 18.4 years. 15 Thus, a person would have to begin watching TV 24 hours a day, each and every day, from birth until after age 18.

In reality, viewers are much more likely to see alcohol portrayed during TV programs than during commercials. For example, an analysis of prime time TV found that alcohol commercials appeared at the rate of 0.2 per hour. Drinking portrayals during programs occured 25 times more frequently, at five times per hour. 16

Some people want to reduce the presence of alcohol on television. Perhaps they should propose eliminating the programming and let children watch commercials instead.

Unidentified Printed Objects

effects of alcohol advertisingYou haven’t noticed them?! All those swirls, squiggles and unusual shapes in ice cubes, on bottles and elsewhere in alcoholic beverage ads. The Center for Science in the Public Interest sees them. It insists “With little imagination, one can see some of these elements as faces, animals, breasts, penises…. 17 This assertion may tell us more about the Center for Science in the Public  Interest (CSPI) than about the ads.

Most people can easily imagine or “see” faces, animals and other objects in clouds and inkblots. Yet CSPI suggests that advertisers intentionally place the “unidentified printed objects” in alcohol beverage print ads. Presumably this is to  seduce people subconsciously to drink. Astonishingly, it actually calls for an investigation of these sinister objects. That includes having “corporate executives testify under oath on the witness stand.”18 Perhaps the Center for Science in the Public Interest should also call for an investigation of clouds and inkblots.

III. A Function of Alcohol Advertising

One of the main arguments against alcohol beverage ads on television is that they “normalize” drinking. To the extent that this is true, the ads may be performing a positive role.

The commonplace nature of alcohol ads on TV serves not to glamorize the products, as some critics suggest.  It casts them as mundane consumer products, right alongside aspirin, cookies, and alkaline batteries. That’s a constructive way for young people to view them.

On the other hand, we could treat beverage alcohol as a dangerous substance that people should avoid. Never advertised. But that would inadvertently raise it up from the ordinary. It would become the powerful, the tantalizing, and the desirable Big Deal. We would be demonizing the substance of alcohol rather than discouraging irresponsible behavior.

What We Need to Do

We should help young people regard the substance of alcohol as neutral. As neither inherently good nor inherently bad. How people use it is what matters. We must convey by word and example that the abuse of alcohol is never humorous, acceptable, or excusable.

Alcohol ads portray attractive people enjoying their products in appealing settings. As do ads for cars, instant coffee and anti-fungal sprays. That normalcy of alcohol ads helps demystify the product. That’s a good place to begin encouraging realistic, moderate, and responsible attitudes about it.

People have responsible attitudes toward alcohol when they understand that such beverages are yet another part of life. Individuals have control over them, like exercise, personal hygiene, or diet.

We want alcohol beverages used in moderation by those who choose to drink. So it’s important that we not stigmatize alcohol, compare it to illegal drugs, and equate it with abuse. They aren’t dangerous poisons. We shouldn’t hide them frm sight and make  them a subject of mystery and fascinationl. But banning alcohol commercials  from TV would do that.

IV. Parental Influence

In spite of all the colorful rhetoric and emotional anecdotes, alcohol commercials do not cause young people to drink. The greatest influence of their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are from their parents.

Parents are much more influential than they generally realize. For example, researchers presented youth aged 12 – 17  six things that might affect their decisions about drinking. Sixty-two percent 62% identified their parents as a leading influence 19 :

  1. Parents (62 percent)
  2. Best friends (28 percent)
  3. Teachers (9 percent)
  4. What they see on television (7 percent)
  5. What they see in ads (4 percent)

It is parents, rather than alcohol ads, with the greater influence over young people.

V. Summary

It’s clear that the effects of alcohol advertising are different from the common belief. It doesn’t increase overall consumption. But it does enable some producers to gain market share at the expense of others.

References

1. Crawford, C., and Gramm, W. Cover memo to Omnibus Petition for Regulation of Unfair and Deceptive Alcoholic Beverage Advertising. Docket No. 209-46. Washington: FTC, March 6, 1985, p. 2.

2. Congressional Record, May 20, 1985.

3. U. S. DHHS. Seventh Special Report to the U. S. Congress on Alcohol and Health. Rockville: U. S. DHHS, 1990.

4. Wilcox, G., et al. Alcohol Advertising and Consumption in the United States. Austin: U Texas, Dept Advertising Working Paper, Jan,, 1986, p. III. Sanders, J. Alcohol Advertisements Do Not Encourage Alcohol Abuse Among Teens. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.) Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 132-135, p. 133.

5. Ogbourne, A., and Smart, R. Will restrictions on alcohol advertising reduce alcohol consumption? Brit J Addict, 1980, 75, 296-298. Smart, R., and Cutler, R. The alcohol advertising ban in British Columbia. Brit J Addict. 1976, 7, 13-21. Waterson, M. J. Advertising and Alcohol Abuse. Advertising Assn, p. 10.

6. Shoup, H., and Dobday, C. Alcohol Advertising Restrictions without Due Cause. In: Engs, R. (Ed.) Controversies in the Addictions Field. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1990. Pp. 130-135, p. 131.

7. Chafetz,M. Television Liquor Ads will not Promote Underage Drinking. In: Scott, B. (ed.) Alcohol, Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. pp. 75-77.

8. Fisher, J. Advertising, Alcohol Consumption, and Abuse: A Worldwide Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993, p. 150.

9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pp. 211-212. Pittman, D., and Lambert, M. Alcohol, Alcoholism and Advertising. St. Louis, MO: Washington U, Soc Sci Inst, 1978, p. 28. Moskowitz, J. The primary prevention of alcohol problems. J Stud Alco, 1989, 50, 54-88, p. 59.

Whitehead, P. Is Advertising Effective?  In: Rush, B., and Ogborne, A. (Eds.) Evaluation Research in the Canadian Addictions Field. Ottawa: Health and Welfare Canada, 1983. Pp. 32-33. Frankena, M., et al. Alcohol Advertising, Consumption and Abuse. In: FTC. Recommendations of the Staff of the Federal Trade Commission. Omnibus Petition for Regulation of Unfair and Deceptive Alcoholic Beverage Marketing Practices, Docket No. 209-46. Washington: FTC, 1985.

Smart, R. Does alcohol advertising affect overall consumption? A review of empirical studies. J Stud Alco, 1988, 49, 314-323. Smart, R. The Impact of Prevention Measures. In: Inst Med. Legislative Approaches to Prevention of Alcohol-Related Problems. Washington: Nat Acad Press, 1982. Pp. 224-246. Atkin, C. Alcoholic-Beverage Advertising. In: Holder, H., and Mello, N. (Eds.) Control Issues in Alcohol Abuse Prevention. Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1987. Pp. 267-303, p. 273. These all examine the effects of alcohol advertising.

10. www.beerwsc.co.nz/html/advertising-consumption.html

11. Nelson, J. Broadcast Advertising and U. S. Demand for Alcoholic Beverages. University Park: Penn State U, 1977. Nelson, J., and Moran, J. Advertising and U. S. alcoholic beverage demand. Empir Econ, 1995, 22, 1-20.

12. Adapted from Shoup and Dobday, p. 133.

13. Taylor, P. Alcohol Advertisements Encourage Alcohol Abuse. In: Wekesser, C. (Ed.) Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 111-121, p. 112.

14. Connolly, G., et al. Alcohol in the mass media and drinking by adolescents. Addict, 1994, 89, 1255-1263.

15. Cafiso, J., et al. J Stud Alco , 1982, 43, 1232-1243.

16. Madden, P., and Grube, J. Alcohol and tobacco advertising on sports and prime-time television. Paper at the Amer Pub Health Assn meetings, Atlanta, Nov 13, 1991.

17. Jacobson, M., et al. The Booze Merchants. Washington: CSPI, 1983, p. 126.

18. Ibid, 1983, p. 138.

19. Roper Youth Report, Aug, 1996.

ANSWERS TO PRESIDENTIAL QUIZ:

  1. Franklin Pierce
  2. Zachary Taylor
  3. James K. Polk
  4. John Tyler
  5. William Henry Harrison
  6. Benjamin Harrison