Adolescent Responses to Televised Beer Advertisements:
The findings of this study raise serious questions about the effects of beer commercials on adolescents' perceptions of alcohol consumption. Although the study did not consistently indicate overwhelmingly different responses to the ads by children of alcoholics, the variations identified deserve further attention from researchers. Likewise, the difference in responses by younger and older adolescents may have implications for alcohol prevention programming as well as policy related to alcohol advertising.
The findings for children of alcoholics:
Although the findings do not conclusively document many differential effects of beer advertising on children of alcoholics, the variances identified should be examined in future studies. Perhaps the strongest finding indicates that children of alcoholics had difficulty reconciling what they saw in the ads with what they know to be reality. A potential direction for future research could include a better understanding of how these negative emotional responses can be used as protective factors in delaying children's drinking and preventing future addiction problems.
Another troubling finding reveals that children of alcoholics were slightly more likely than other youngsters to anticipate positive consequences of drinking beer. While the differences are not substantial, this factor, coupled with age, might increase the vulnerability of younger adolescents from alcoholic families to early and heavy drinking, especially those who feel lonely and are seeking popularity.
A final troublesome finding indicates that children of alcoholics were more likely than others to perceive a high level of consumption in beer advertisements. Children of alcoholics are three to four times more likely to become addicted to alcohol and other drugs. If these children perceive normal consumption patterns to be at a binge level, they may be more likely to engage in binge drinking themselves.
Research shows that children of alcoholics not only drink differently than other children, they also metabolize alcohol differently, making them even more susceptible to alcohol problems. Educational efforts for children of alcoholics need to emphasize their heightened risk for addiction. Research needs to address children of alcoholics' definition of normative consumption of beer, wine, and hard liquor.
While these findings are preliminary, they provide a direction and need for additional research, which may in turn help prevention and alcoholism specialists work more effectively with children of alcoholics to break the intergenerational cycle of alcoholism.
The findings for adolescents in general:
1) Most adolescent viewers of beer ads believed that the advertisements model heavy beer consumption; children exposed to heavy drinking in the home environment were noticeably more likely to estimate higher alcohol consumption in the ads.
While it is not particularly surprising that children of alcoholics would perceive high-level consumption as normal adult drinking behavior, the fact that most adolescents indicated a binge level of five or more beers consumed by characters in the ads suggests that the beer ads convey the impression that drinkers normally consume large amounts of beer. Although the respondents perceived more drinking in some of the study ads than in others, their estimates of drinking for each ad far exceeded what is normally considered moderate consumption -- two or fewer beers.
In fact, no more than 25% of the teens estimated beer consumption in any one ad at this level. On average, only 21% estimated beer consumption at one or two drinks. This perception of heavy drinking may validate the heavy drinking practices that are quite common among young teenagers and young adults, foster false expectations about drinking as an adult, and lead to potential health and safety risks.
Binge drinking, generally defined as consuming five or more drinks per occasion, presents one of the most serious drug problems affecting young people today. Although rates of binge drinking among high school seniors have declined since the early 1980s, more than one in four seniors still binges at least once every two weeks (28%), according to the 1995 National Institute on Drug Abuse Monitoring the Future study. Fewer than half (48%) think there's great risk in having five or more drinks once or twice each weekend. In fact, heavy consumption heightens the risk of serious immediate harm related to alcohol and, for some, leads to alcohol dependency and other addiction problems.
Even if adolescent perceptions of heavy drinking mirror the behavior of many young people, they contrast starkly with the facts about alcohol consumption in this country. In reality, approximately 40% of adults in the United States abstain from alcohol.19 Abstinence varies tremendously by state, with the highest rate in Tennessee (72.6% abstainers) and the lowest in Massachusetts (30.5%).20 Of those who drink, no more than 5% do so every day; only 12% report drinking four or more drinks per occasion. In contrast, the ads portray heavy drinking as widespread, fun, acceptable, and expected.
2) Adolescents expressed a belief that they are among the targets of the ads, even though they recognized that the actors were older than the minimum legal drinking age.
The strong response that adolescents had to the St. Ides Rapper ad -- 77% believed that the producer wanted underage persons to drink its malt liquor -- provides evidence that older characters in ads might appeal to young people as much as those who appear to be under the minimum legal drinking age.
Brewers' practice of using models who are 25 years and older may not sufficiently discourage the interest teens show in beer advertising. The context of the advertisement probably has as much an impact on young people as the apparent age of the characters. Further inquiry along these lines appears warranted.
3) Of the beer ads presented, those identified by viewers as more fantasy-based were the most popular and well-liked.
Although adolescents in the study generally did not identify strongly with characters in the ads, they expressed a clear preference for ads which presented romantic or non-reality based themes. In fact, a high degree of unsolicited interest for the humorous, animated Budweiser frog ads, which were quite popular around the time of the survey, was expressed in the open-ended comments.
This finding raises questions about the content of many current ads that use non-adult themes, characters, and animals that have little real-world relevance to beer.
Unfortunately, one could list dozens of beer ads that have used fantasy images which apparently have strong appeal with teens. Among the most obvious are those featuring Miller Lite space creatures, the Bud Bowl, Budweiser ants and anteaters, Bud Light transforming trucks and desert-oasis, instant parties.
Although brewers may target ads specifically to drinkers of legal age, there is little doubt that teens view, understand, and enjoy the same ads. Too many of the ads use themes that not only resonate with young audiences but become part of their culture as well.
4) Adolescent perceptions of beer drinkers in real life did not square with the portrayals of drinkers in the beer commercials.
This disconnect between real life and the upbeat, attractive, fun, and glamorous portrayals in ads may have implications for the development of adolescent attitudes about drinking. On one hand, these findings may indicate that adolescents are not seduced by alcohol advertisements. The fact that they tend to associate negative characteristics and emotions with real drinkers and positive attributes and emotions with drinkers in ads may suggest that they are able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, that adolescents' impressions of the negatives of alcohol consumption are not swayed by positive character portrayals.
On the other hand, a more cautious interpretation of the findings would suggest that alcohol advertisements influence viewers' opinions of drinkers, that adolescents' perception of real-life drinkers might be even less flattering if not supported by glamorous advertising depictions. In fact, the favorable perceptions of drinkers that adolescents grasp from advertisements may threaten to erode real drinking impressions they derive from their family and friends. These perceptions also contrast with prevention messages related by health educators in school and in support groups.
5) Adolescents displayed surprisingly high negative expectations of how beer drinking might affect their future lives.
This finding, especially strong for the younger adolescents in the survey, may reflect the success that education and prevention programs have had in communicating the many risks of alcohol consumption. Harder to understand is the response from those classified as children of alcoholics, who were more likely to anticipate both negative and positive outcomes from their future drinking. Apparently, those children may have been exposed to numerous negative aspects of drinking (fights, family disturbances, unhappiness), but their greater exposure to alcohol also probably made it more central to their lives and futures. A belief in future positives related to alcohol consumption may help validate the current heavy influence of alcohol in their lives. These positive expectations may also function as "rose-colored glasses" through which children can look at their parents without blame or anger, or as fantasy-based coping strategies.
The findings for younger adolescents:
The study also found that younger respondents had different reactions to televised beer commercials than their somewhat older peers. Although younger and older survey respondents differed in age by only a few years (11-12 year olds and 13 and older), their responses to questions about alcohol consumption and the beer commercials varied in several respects.
Most notably, younger respondents reported decidedly less favorable attitudes about drinking than their older peers, indicating that alcohol prevention beliefs held by young adolescents appear to weaken as children age. Older adolescents have been exposed to more drinking by friends, and they are undoubtedly more attentive to alcohol advertising and other stimuli that promote drinking. These environmental factors may effectively stifle the prevention messages that had been inculcated into younger teens in schools.
Younger adolescents (11-12 year olds) were also far more likely than those 13 and older to underestimate the age of actors in ads and to perceive that the characters in the ads were engaged in heavy drinking. These results appear to reflect their more limited experience; however, these changing perceptions may also affect youth decisions about whether and how much to drink.
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Alcohol Policies Project
1220 L St. NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202-332-9110 * Fax: 202-265-4954 * Web: www.cspinet.org/booze