Adolescent Responses to Televised Beer Advertisements:
Children of Alcoholics and Others



Alcohol advertising research methodology

In general, there are two research designs for studies on the influence of alcohol advertising: experimental designs and field survey studies.  Experimental designs expose subjects to advertisements in a controlled laboratory setting (although some field experiments are able to emulate a naturalistic exposure pattern) and measure outcome variables including alcohol consumption, intent to purchase alcohol, actual purchasing behavior, knowledge about alcohol and affective reactions to the ads.1,2,3,4,5  Based on current experimental literature, there is no conclusive evidence that direct exposure to advertisements influences any of these outcome measures; however, this may be a result of the methodological limitations of the laboratory setting.6  Field survey studies use correlational data to determine how the frequency of subjects' exposure to advertising predicts a variety of beliefs and expectancies about alcohol. For example, Strickland's 1983 study measured the correlation between seventh, ninth and eleventh graders' exposure to television commercials for alcohol and the students' quantity and frequency of drinking.7

Overall, research has shown a mildly positive association between high viewing frequency and more positive attitudes toward alcohol.

Attributes of alcohol advertising

Like all advertising, beer advertising seeks to initiate or increase consumption of the products, as well as shift consumers from one brand to another. Ads may reduce inhibitions to consuming alcohol by showing that drinking is normative behavior or inundate the viewer with repeated visual associations between the product and appealing imagery. Lifestyle ads often depict rewarding consequences of alcohol consumption, such as romance, sexual encounters, patriotism, friendship, popularity, escape, adventure, relaxation and wealth.8,9

Advertisements may also extol product quality, try to differentiate one brand from another, or use repeated images of the product to increase buyers' recognition and familiarity.

How advertising influences behavior

Numerous theories account for the way beer advertising affects adolescent audiences. Stimulus-centered explanations include observational learning (disinhibition and reminder cues), message-learning, cultivation of societal beliefs, classical conditioning, and knowledge acquisition. Receiver-oriented theories include cognitive response theory and expectancy-value theory. For a complete discussion of these theories with examples of how they apply to alcohol advertising, see Atkin, 1989.10

Children and adolescents' exposure to alcohol advertisements

Various researchers have estimated that a typical adolescent encounters over 2,000 beer, wine, and liquor ads in newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and billboards each year.11 Much of the exposure to television commercials takes the form of beer advertising on sports programming, where there is an average of two commercials per hour.12 In contrast, during prime-time fictional programming only about one alcohol advertisement appears every four hours. While there is substantial variability in how much viewers attend to these ads, it is clear that young people view beer, and sometimes, wine ads.

Research on alcohol advertising's effects on children and adolescents

Studies have shown that younger adolescents and children may be unaware of some of the messages in alcohol advertisements, but children ages 14 and older are able to accurately process messages in commercials.13 Children of about age 10 begin to attend to advertisements, with increasing attention between 10 and 14 years. By the age of 16, adolescents routinely list alcohol advertisements among their favorite commercials.14

A 1984 Atkin and Block study found that positive attitudes towards drinking and/or alcohol were moderately associated with exposure to advertising.15 Adolescents who were heavily exposed to advertising were more likely to feel that drinkers have positive characteristics, such as being attractive, athletic or successful. They were also more likely to drink and drink heavily.

A 1988 study showed that young drinkers report higher levels of exposure to alcohol advertisements, are more accurate at identifying beer brands, and have more positive opinions about alcohol advertisements than nondrinkers.16 This relationship was maintained even when factors such as peer influence and gender were controlled.

A relatively recent study of children and alcohol advertising showed that those who were more aware of beer advertising had increased recognition of beer slogans and brands, and held more positive beliefs about drinking than less-aware children.17 Critically, they also reported more intention to drink as adults. This study may be differentiated from others that preceded it because it tested both exposure and attention to advertising, instead of just exposure. The researchers concluded that there is evidence that "alcohol advertising causes children to become more predisposed toward drinking."

Children of alcoholics

More than 7 million children across the nation grow up in families where one or more parent has a drinking problem. These young people are especially at risk for a broad array of problems, including their own future addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

Compared to other youngsters, children of alcoholics suffer more injuries and illnesses, and are hospitalized more often for psychiatric problems and substance abuse. They are at increased risk for being abused and neglected, being victimized by incest, and witnessing parental violence. They comprise a disproportionately high number of children with eating disorders, and are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

These children are also more likely to be involved in some of society's most intractable problems: crime, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, poor academic achievement and dropping out of school, running away from home, and addiction.18

Many children of alcoholics think they are alone. They feel ashamed of their parents, and are often reluctant to make friends, fearing that if they bring friends home to play, their parent may be drinking or acting strangely. They may feel responsible for their parents' addiction, and believe that if they were better behaved, studied more, excelled in sports, or kept the house immaculate, their parents would not drink so much.

Some children of alcoholics adapt to family chaos by acting out. Others become unusually responsible, taking care of siblings and the household. Still others withdraw, trying to hide themselves from the craziness at home. Because addiction carries with it both secrecy and denial, children of alcoholics are often unable to talk to the very people -- friends and professionals -- who might be able to give them the help and support they need.

Because of this vulnerability and the potential for widespread and serious physical and emotional harm, it is important that research on alcohol advertising make special efforts to understand the impact of ads on children of alcoholics. Are these young people more skeptical of scenes associating alcohol use with fun times, knowing how they differ from realities at home? Or do they find themselves particularly attracted to these ads? Are children of alcoholics more susceptible to the messages broadcast in commercials?

Center for Science in the Public Interest
1220 L St., NW, #300
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 332-9110, ext. 385

Children of Alcoholics Foundation, Inc.
164 West 74th Street
New York, NY 10023
(202) 212-595-5810, ext. 7760


July 1996