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

Publications

Acknowledgements * Summary * Introduction * Background * Survey Methodology * Findings * Discussion * Conclusion * Recommendations * Footnotes

 

Findings

 

Analysis of the data did not reveal many differences in responses to beer advertisements by children of alcoholics and other adolescents.  However, in several areas, children of alcoholics indicated a disturbing vulnerability to the messages delivered by the ads.  This section summarizes the key findings for all respondents and highlights troublesome differences in responses based on age and exposure to parental alcohol abuse and dependence.

 

1) Heavy drinking modeled by the ads

 

For each of the five beer commercials, respondents were asked how many beers the characters would consume.  Alarmingly, most adolescents perceived a high level of alcohol consumption in the advertisements, irrespective of the nature of character portrayals and imagery in the ads.  Adolescent viewers indicated that ad characters consumed an average of 3.7 beers in a single advertisement.  Many youth estimated that the characters were binge drinking -- five or more beers.

 

Figure 1.

Perceived beer consumption

number of beers consumed

Commercial

0-2

3-4

5 or more

Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker

17%

43%

40%

Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island

34

34

32

Bud Light Beach Play

29

32

39

St. Ides Rapper

20

32

48

Miller Lite TV Drinking Party

6

26

68

 

The Miller Lite TV Drinking Party ad elicited particularly high estimates of the quantity of beers consumed.  Sixty-eight percent of the respondents said characters in this ad would drink at least five beers, and another 15% estimated four.  The St. Ides Rapper ad also elicited perceptions of heavy drinking by many respondents: 48% estimated binge drinking, and another 12% estimated the characters would drink four beers.  In contrast, only 10% estimated that the rappers in this ad would drink two beers.  Across all the ads, an average of only one-fifth (21%) of respondents said ad characters consumed two or fewer beers.

 

Children of alcoholics were vulnerable to perceptions of heavy drinking.  For the Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker ad: 50% of the children of alcoholics said they thought characters would drink five or more beers, compared to 37% of the other respondents (p<.05).  Similarly, 44% of children of alcoholics thought the characters in the Bud Light Beach Play ad would consume five or more beers, compared to 37% of the other children, although this latter finding was not statistically significant.

 

Figure 2.

Perceived beer consumption by type of respondent:

"5 or more beers"

Commercial

COA

Other

Total

Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker *

50%

37%

40%

Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island

40

28

32

Bud Light Beach Play

44

37

39

St. Ides Rapper

48

46

48

Miller Lite TV Drinking Party

74

65

68

* Difference between children of alcoholics and others is statistically significant (p<.05).

 

Younger viewers were also more likely to perceive excessive drinking.  Forty-four percent (44%) of the younger respondents estimated consumption of five or more beers in the Bud Light Beach Play ad, compared to 34% of their older peers.  On average, younger viewers estimated that characters in this ad would have 3.6 drinks, while older viewers estimated only 3.2.

 

Figure 3.

Perceived beer consumption by age of respondent:

"5 or more beers"

Commercial

Ages

11-12

Ages

13-15

Total

Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker *

44%

36%

40%

Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island

34

28

32

Bud Light Beach Play *

44

34

39

St. Ides Rapper *

51

43

48

Miller Lite TV Drinking Party

70

66

68

* Difference between age groups is statistically significant (p<.05).

 

2) Children of alcoholics have negative feelings elicited by ads

 

While children of alcoholics may be drawn to the enjoyable stories and characters portrayed in the ads, they had difficulty reconciling these images with the reality of drinkers they know.  After viewing the ads, respondents were asked to circle words that described their feelings about the ads and people they know who drink beer.

 

Although most respondents reported neutral or positive feelings, children of alcoholics were significantly more likely to report feeling confused, angry, sad, and embarrassed after watching the commercials.  For example, 35% of the children from alcoholic families said they felt confused after viewing the Miller Lite TV Drinking Party ad, compared to only 24% of the other children (p<.05).  This same ad triggered feelings of sadness in 35% of the children of alcoholics, anger in 34% and embarrassment in 30%.

 

Emotional Responses to ads

Commercial

Response

COA

Other

Total

Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island

Confused *

36%

25%

28%

Sad *

32

22

25

Angry *

33

22

25

Embarrassed *

30

15

19

Miller Lite TV Drinking Party

Confused *

35

24

26

Sad *

35

22

25

Angry *

34

21

24

Embarrassed *

30

14

18

* Difference between children of alcoholics and others is statistically significant (p<.05).

 

These feelings of confusion, sadness, anger, and embarrassment were also evidenced in the open-ended responses.  A child of an alcoholic explained, "I really don't like any of these commercials.  A person who drinks beer is stupid...I don't think it's cool, I think it really sucks."  Another disconcerted viewer wrote, "I really think that these commercials don't make sense.  People are not always happy, beautiful or tough when they drink any alcohol."

 

3) Negative and positive consequences of drinking perceived

 

Although they tended to associate positive attributes with drinkers in ads, respondents were less optimistic in projecting how drinking the advertised brands would affect their own future lives.  In fact, when asked if they'd "have more fun," "be less happy," "have more friends," or "have more problems with my family" because of drinking the advertised beer, respondents overall were much more likely to anticipate negative than positive outcomes.

 

After viewing the Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island commercial, 62% of the survey participants said that drinking Miller would cause them more problems with their families and 39% said they would be less happy.  Conversely, only about one-fifth (1/5) said they would have more fun, more friends, and go out on more dates as a result of drinking Miller beer.

 

One troubling finding revealed that while children from alcoholic families were more likely to anticipate negative consequences of drinking beer, they were also slightly more likely to anticipate positive outcomes than other children.  For example, 22% of the children of alcoholics said they would have more friends if they drank Miller beer, compared to only 18% of the other youngsters; 24% said they would go out on more dates (compared to only 16% of other teens).

 

Younger respondents were significantly more aware of the potential negative outcomes.  For the Miller Lite TV Drinking Party ad, more than half of the younger children anticipated fights, sadness, and few friends as a result of drinking the brand.  In contrast, only 24% of the older respondents envisioned these results.

 

4) Adolescents feel targeted by beer ads

 

The beer industry claims to use actors in beer ads who are at least 25 years old; however, the study found that this may not significantly reduce the appeal that the ads have for adolescent viewers.  In response to questions about the age of characters who appeared in the ads, most adolescents recognized that actors in the alcohol advertisements were at least 21 years old.  For all the ads, an average of only 15% thought that characters were under 21.  This rose to 23% of viewers of the St. Ides Rapper ad.

 

Younger viewers, however, were twice as likely as older viewers to believe that the actors were underage.  On average, 20% thought the actors were under 21.  For the Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker ad, 24% of the younger viewers believed the actor was underage, compared to 14% of the older viewers (p<.05).  Younger adolescents were more than twice as likely (32% to 15%) to think the characters in the St. Ides Rapper ad were under 21.  According to one younger viewer, "some of the people in the commercials look around 17 and 18.  Because of this, people may think its cool to drink underage."

 

Although most adolescents in the study recognized that actors were of legal drinking age, a large percentage of the respondents to one ad (the St. Ides Rapper) indicated that the brewer intends for their product to be consumed by young people.  When asked at what age the advertiser for this beer thinks people should start drinking, a startling 77% of respondents estimated an age under 21.

 

This response indicates that using clearly adult characters in ads may not reduce their appeal to underage consumers.  Regardless of the beer industry's policy to use only actors above the age of 25 in televised advertisements, adolescents still come away with the belief that they are being targeted by the companies.  As one respondent explained in the open-ended comment section of the survey, "the companies are using older people, while obviously targeting younger people."  Another young viewer remarked, "I think they are trying to get teenagers to drink beer so they will always buy beer."  The belief that teenagers are the intended consumers of alcoholic beverages was consistent with the finding that more than 50% of the younger viewers agreed with the assertion that almost all teenagers drink alcohol.

 

5) Beer ads portray rosy picture inconsistent with reality

 

In order to sell their products, advertisements typically associate beer consumption with sexual prowess, athleticism, and social success, and show characters having fun in different social settings.  To determine whether respondents came away from viewing the ads with favorable perceptions of characters, adolescents were asked to select words which described them.

 

While respondents' perceptions of the drinkers varied according to the storyline of the ads, in general, adolescents regarded drinkers they saw in the ads as having a positive array of characteristics.  For example, respondents associated such qualities as "good-looking," "popular," "cool," "fun," and "happy," with characters in the beach ads ten times more than negative qualities such as "sad," "mean," "threatening," "loud," and "tired."

 

The strong positive traits viewers attributed to characters in beer ads contrasted markedly with their descriptions of beer drinkers in real life.  In general, respondents ascribed many negative traits to beer drinkers they personally know.  For example, when averaged across four ads:

  • Sixty-eight percent (68%) indicated that drinkers in the ads appeared happy but only 42% associated this characteristic with drinkers they know;

  • Thirteen percent (13%) associated angry with drinkers in the ads; 43% associated it with drinkers in real life;

  • Thirteen percent (13%) said drinkers in the ads appeared tired; 42% said drinkers in real life were tired;

  • Seven percent (7%) said drinkers in the ads were sad; 25% said real life drinkers were sad.

Children of alcoholics were more likely than their peers to ascribe both positive and negative traits to drinkers they know, with statistically significant differences for four traits: "cool" (41% of the children of alcoholics identified this as a trait of beer drinkers they know, compared to only 30% of other adolescents), "angry" (54% compared to 39%), "tough" (49% compared to 40%), and "mean" (49% compared to 42%).  In contrast, they appeared to agree in general with youngsters from non-alcoholic families about how they perceived the characters in the ads.

 

6) Mixed attitudes about underage drinking

 

Prior to viewing the commercials, respondents were asked whether they agreed with a series of statements about alcohol, teenagers, and drinking.  Their responses varied dramatically.  Many youths indicated approval of underage drinking.  Twenty percent said that "it is acceptable for teenagers to get drunk," and one-third said that "teenagers should be able to drink."

 

At the conclusion of the survey, when asked at what age a person should be before starting to drink beer, 57% indicated an age under 21.  "Drinking alcohol should be allowed to everyone over 13 years," explained one viewer.  "There shouldn't be an age limit to be allowed to drink, maybe 13 or something," remarked another.

 

Perhaps even more revealing than the adolescents' own views of alcohol consumption were their perceptions of their friends' attitudes about underage drinking.  While 36% of the respondents indicated that "getting drunk can be fun," 46% said that their "friends think getting drunk can be fun."  Nearly half agreed with the statement that "almost all teenagers drink alcohol."  Fifty percent said that their "friends drink alcohol a lot."  Because many young teens are influenced by the normative behavior and attitudes of their peers, this finding should be of particular interest to professionals working with young people, communities, and parents.

 

Many other adolescents indicated strong disapproval of underage consumption. Comments such as "Alcohol stinks," "Alcohol is bad," "I don't ever want to drink," and "I think teenagers should not drink" were common in the open-ended responses.

 

Age appears to be a strong factor in approval of underage drinking.  Younger respondents were significantly less likely than their older peers to think it acceptable for teens to get drunk.  Only 26% of the 11-12 year olds, compared to 62% of the older participants, said it was "okay to drink heavily."  Moreover, more than half of the older viewers reported that they, as well as their friends, think that "getting drunk is fun;" the younger adolescents were less than half as likely to agree.  In addition, the 11-12 year olds were considerably less likely than the older respondents to state that "some kinds of alcohol taste good" and that "alcohol makes people feel relaxed" and "friendly."

 

7) Adolescents preferred fantasy ads to realistic character portrayals

 

The survey also included questions designed to determine what kinds of advertisements and characters appeal to young viewers.  Respondents provided substantial information about their preferences through their answers to both closed and open-ended questions.

 

None of the five commercials elicited an overwhelmingly positive response.  On average, only 23% said they liked the ads a lot, and 35% said they liked the ads a little.  The most appealing of the five was the romantic Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island ad, with 77% reporting liking it a lot or a little.  Two ads which featured people socializing were also well received: the Bud Light Beach Play ad was liked by 67% of respondents, and the fantasy-based Miller Lite TV Drinking Party scored 66%.

 

In contrast, only 35% of the adolescent viewers reported that they liked the Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker ad.  Age and history of parental alcoholism were not related to preferences for ads.

 

Viewer approval of beer advertisements appears to be related directly to the fantasy-like quality of the character portrayals.  The more imaginative and romantic the character portrayal, the higher the viewer approval rating.  For instance, only 41% of the respondents thought that the characters in the most well-liked commercial, the Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island ad, were like people they knew, and just 44% rated the characters as realistic in the second-most popular ad -- Bud Light Beach Play.  In contrast, 72% of the respondents thought that characters in the Budweiser Rookie Construction Worker ad were realistic; it was their least favorite of the five commercials.

 

Viewers also expressed their preference for imaginative commercials in the open response section of the survey.  Of all ads spontaneously mentioned, adolescents most frequently referred to Budweiser beer ads featuring animated, croaking frogs.  "Some of the ads make no sense, but look cool like the Budweiser frogs.  These catch the viewers eye," explained one respondent.  "If I do watch them [beer ads], it's because they are funny, like the frog Budweiser commercial," added another viewer.  These unsolicited references to specific commercials indicate clearly that the Budweiser frog advertising campaign has been effective in attracting the attention of young people.

 

While respondents in general did not perceive that characters are like real people, younger teens were more susceptible to the fantasy.  For example, 52% of the 11-12 year olds rated the Miller Genuine Draft Fantasy Island ad characters as realistic, compared to only 30% of the older respondents (p<.05).

 

The data also indicate that the more children liked the advertisements, the more likely they were to have favorable attitudes towards drinking, as measured by agreement with such statements as: "it is easier to have fun at a party if you're drinking," "getting drunk can be fun," "alcohol makes drinkers feel friendly," and "almost all teenagers drink alcohol."

 

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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

(212) 595-2553 ext. 7760

 

July 1996

 

 

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