What are the effects of alcohol advertising? Does alcohol advertising cause people to begin drinkng or to drink more? Could it cause alcohol abuse? These important questions need answers. And we need research evidence instead of opinions or gut feelings.
II. Young People & Ads
So, alcohol advertising causes young people to begin drinking. It increases alcohol consumption. And that increases alcohol abuse….right? No. There is no solid evidence from scientific research that any of these beliefs are correct.
I. Evidence: Effects of Alcohol Advertising
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) carefully studied the evidence. It found that there is “no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse.”1
A U.S. Senate subcommittee also investigated the effects of alcohol advertising. Its report appeared in the Congressional Record. The Senate could not find evidence that advertising influences non-drinkers to begin drinking or to increase consumption.2
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) also carefully studiesd the matter. Its report to Congress concluded that there is no significant relationship between alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption. Therefore, it did not recommend banning or imposing any additional restrictions on advertising.3
A University of Texas study of the effects of alcohol advertising covered a 21-year period. It found that the amount of money spent on alcohol ads had little relationship with total consumption in the population.4
Studies in both Canada and the United States find no significant link between restrictions on advertising and alcohol consumption.5
Alcohol advertising expenditures have increased, during which time alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined.6
The founding Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) studied the effects of alcohol advertising. His conclusion was clear. “There is not a single study – not one study in the United States or internationally – that credibly connects advertising with an increase in alcohol use or abuse.”7
There was a definitive review of research from around the world on the effects of alcohol advertising. It found that advertising has virtually no influence on consumption. Also, 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 consumption. For example, alcohol brand advertising was first introduced in New Zealand back in 1992. While advertising continues to increase, consumption continues to fall.10
Does Advertising Boost Consumption?
Alcohol is a “mature” product category. That is, consumers are already aware of the product and its basic nature. Therefore, advertising specific brands doesn’t affect overall consumption.11
If advertising doesn’t increase consumption, why bother to advertise? The answer is simple. It’s to increase market share.
Instead of increasing total consumption, the objective of advertisers is to encourage consumers to switch to their brand. They also want to create brand loyalty. Thus, effective advertisers gain market share. And this is at the expense of others, who lose market share. Advertisers try to get a “bigger slice of the pie.”
An example illustrates why advertisers don’t try to increase the total market for alcoholic beverages.
The total retail value of beer produced annually in the U.S. is about $50 billion. Assume a producer’s advertising campaign increases its market share by one percent. Its sales would increase by $500 million. However, assume the total market for beer increased by one percent. A brand with a 10% share of the market would only experience a sales increase of $50 million.
First Scenario: 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.
Second Scenario: 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.
Clearly, a producer has a great incentive to increase market share. On the other hand, it has little incentive (or ability) to increase the total market size. For this reason, advertisers focus their efforts on established consumers. They seek to strengthen the loyalty of their own consumers. And they want to induce other consumers to switch to their brand.12
II. Young People & Ads
Some have made of the fact that young people often have great recognition of some alcohol beverage brand labels. They may recognize them better than they can name former US presidents.13
These reports make great press but what does it all mean? Probably nothing. That’s because there is no evidence that such recognition leads to experimentation, consumption, or abuse. Sometimes it even appears to be related to less drinking later.14
Similarly, most adults are probably good at identifying photos of popular entertainers. Yet thay may have a hard time identifying former presidents. That probably doesn’t mean much either.
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 typical young person will have seen 100,000 beer commercials. However, to see that many, a person would have to watch TV for about 161,290 hours. That’s 18.4 years.15 Thus, a person would have to begin watch TV 24 hours a 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, alcohol commercials appear at the rate of 0.2 per hour. On the other hand, drinking portrayals during programs occur five times per hour. That’s 25 times more often.16
Those who want to reduce the presence of alcohol on TV might change their approach. Perhaps they should propose eliminating the programs and instead of the commercials. Or let young people watch commercials rather than the programs. That way their exposure to alcohol on TV would greatly drop.
Unidentified Printed Objects
You haven’t noticed them? All those swirls, squiggles and unusual shapes in ice cubes. Also on bottles, in liquid, and elsewhere in alcohol beverage ads. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has seen many of them. It sees “faces, animals, breasts, penises, death masks, and other forms….”17 This assertion may tell us more about the CSPI than about the ads.
Most people can easily “see” faces, animals and other objects in clouds and inkblots if they try. But the CSPI suggests that the “unidentified printed objects” in alcohol beverage print ads are intentionally placed there by advertisers. This is to subconsciously seduce people to drink.
Astonishingly, it actually calls for an investigation of these sinister objects. It wants the investigation to including having “corporate executives testify under oath on the witness stand.”18 And while the CSPI is at it, perhaps it should call for a Congressional investigation of clouds and inkblots.
A Function of Commercials
A common arguments against alcohol ads on TV is that they “normalize” drinking to young viewers. To the extent that this is true, the ads may be performing a positive role.
The commonplace nature of alcohol ads on TV casts them as ordinary consumer products. Advertisers place their alcohol beverages alongside aspirin, cookies, and alkaline batteries. That’s a good way for young people to view them.
On the other hand, we could treat beverage alcohol as a dangerous substance to avoid and not even advertise. But that would raise it up from the ordinary. It would enter the realm of the powerful, the tantalizing, and the desirable Big Deal. In so doing, we slip into the familiar, failed pattern of demonizing the substance of alcohol. Instead, we should be discouraging irresponsible behavior.
We should help young people regard the substance of alcohol as neutral. They should see it 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 show their products consumed in appealing settings by attractive people. They same is true of ads for cars, instant coffee and anti-fungal sprays. That normalcy of alcohol ads helps demystify the product. And that’s a good place to begin encouraging realistic, moderate, and responsible attitudes about it.
Responsible attitudes toward alcohol are based on the understanding that such beverages are yet another part of life. Also, that people have control over their own decisions. Just as they do with what they choose to eat or to watch on TV.
Those who choose to drink alcohol beverages should enjoy them in moderation. So we shouldn’t stigmatize these beverages, compare them to illegal drugs, and associate them with abuse. They aren’t dangerous poisons to hide from sight and become a subject of mystery and perhaps fascinating appeal.
So promoting moderation among drinkers is an important function of alcohol ads, including TV commercials.
Clearly, alcohol commercials do not cause young people to drink. That’s not one of the effects of alcohol advertising. For example, a survey asked young people what influenced them about alcohol. The greatest influence of their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are from their parents.
Parents are much more influential than they generally realize. For example, 62% of U.S. youth aged 12 to 17 identified their parents as the leading influence.19
Best friends (28%)
What they see on television (7%)
What they see in ads (4%)
It is parents, rather than alcohol ads, with by far the greatest influence over young people.
ANSWERS TO PRESIDENTIAL QUIZ:
1. Franklin Pierce
2. Zachary Taylor
3. James K. Polk
4. John Tyler
5. William Henry Harrison
6. Benjamin Harrison
III. Resources & References
Resources on The Effects of Alcohol Advertising
Balkin, K. Alcohol: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2014.
Fennis, B. & Stroebe, W. The Psychology of Advertising. London: Routledge, 2016.
Jefkins, F. Advertising. London: Elsevier, 2016.
1. Crawford, C., and Gramm, W. Cover memo to Omnibus Petition for Regulation of Unfair and Deceptive Alcoholic Beverage Advertising and Marketing Practices. Washington: FTC, 1985, p. 2.
2. Congressional Record, May 20, 1985.
3. DHSS. Seventh Special Report to the U. S. Congress on Alcohol and Health. Rockville, MD: DHSS, 1990.
4. Wilcox, G., et al. Alcohol Beverage Advertising and Consumption in the United States. Austin: U. Texas, Dept Ad, Jan, 1996, 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 Add, 1990, 75, 296-298. Smart, R., and Cutler, R. The alcohol advertising ban in British Columbia. Brit J Add., 1976, 7, 13-21. Waterson, M. Advertising and Alcohol Abuse. Ad 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, IA: 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. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993, p. 150.
9. DHHS. Alcohol and Health. Rockville, MD: DHHS, 1990, pp. 211-212. Pittman, D., and Lambert, M. Alcohol, Alcoholism and Advertising. St. Louis: Wash 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 FTC. Washington: FTC, 1985.
Still more on the effects of alcohol advertising. Smart, R. Does alcohol advertising affect overall consumption? 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 Press, 1987. Pp. 267-303, p. 273.
11. Nelson, J. Broadcast Advertising and U. S. Demand for Alcoholic Beverages. U Park, PA: Penn. State U, 1977. Nelson, J. and Moran, J. Advertising and U. S. alcoholic beverage demand. Emp Econ, 1995, 22, 1-20.
12. Adapted from Shoup, H., and Dobday, C. Alcohol Advertising Restrictions without Due Cause. In: Engs, R. (ed.) Controversies in the Addictions Field. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1990, p. 133.
13. Taylor, P. Alcohol Advertisements Encourage Alcohol Abuse. In: Wekesser, C. (ed.) Alcoholism. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994. Pp. 111-121, p. 112. (This isn’t one of the effects of alcohol advertising.)
14. Connolly, G., et al. Alcohol in the mass media and drinking by adolescents. Add, 1994, 89, 1255-1263.
15. Cafiso, J., et al. Television portrayal of alcohol and other beverages. 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 APHA 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, August, 1996.