The Simultaneous Decline of Alcohol Advertising and
Alcohol Problems in the United States

by George A. Hacker and Laura Anne Stuart

June 1995


Since the early 1980s a wide range of consumer, parent, religious, health and medical, and alcohol prevention organizations have campaigned to reform the advertising of alcoholic beverages. Backed by citizen outrage and polls showing strong popular support, these groups challenged advertising directed to underage youth and other vulnerable populations and advertising that linked alcohol with sports, social success, risk-taking activities, and sexual prowess. Though unsuccessful, legislative campaigns to restrict alcohol ads nonetheless resulted in well-publicized Congressional hearings, governmental policy statements, changes in advertising practices, and increased efforts by the alcoholic-beverage, advertising, and broadcast industries to promote responsibility and discourage drunken driving.

One of the most dramatic and least noticed industry responses to those attacks (and other factors) has been the steady reduction in expenditures for alcohol advertising in the measured media (television, radio, print, outdoor). Between 1986 and 1993, spending for alcoholic-beverage advertising, in inflation-adjusted dollars, declined a phenomenal 46.5%. Outlays dropped from a high of $ 1.511 billion (inflation-adjusted dollars) in 1986 to $808 million in 1993.

All segments of the alcoholic-beverage industry reported significant reductions in ad spending: beer ad expenditures dropped 40%; liquor, 41%; wine was off 54%; and wine coolers (now designated "low-alcohol refreshers") plummeted 88%.

Alcoholic-beverage producers also fell in the rankings of leading national advertisers, shrinking from seven entries among the top one hundred to just four. For example, Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer and biggest alcohol advertiser, dropped from the number seven (7) position to number twenty-four (24) in eight years. This reduced visibility was apparent even on television, where the company plunged in the rankings from number eight (8) in 1986 to number eighteen (18) in 1993.

The massive retreat from measured media advertising has paralleled modest reductions in alcohol consumption and the incidence of alcohol problems, particularly among young people. Overall per capita alcohol consumption declined 10%, to a 26-year low in 1992. Although revenues from the sale of alcoholic beverages rose between 1986 and 1993, when adjusted for inflation, sales actually sagged 20%.

Alcohol-related vehicle crash deaths fell from 24,045 in 1986 to under 17,500 in 1993. Alcohol involvement in fatal crashes for drivers aged sixteen to twenty decreased from 36.5% in 1986 to 24.6% in 1993; for those twenty-one to twenty-four, from 47.3% to 39.4%.

Reported binge drinking (five or more drinks at a time) among high-school seniors declined by one-fourth, to 27.5% of 12th graders in 1993. Binge drinking by college students also declined.

The absence of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of advertising that glorifies the pleasures of alcoholic beverages has reduced the pressure on consumers to drink and given prevention messages a slightly greater chance of success. However, it is impossible to know the extent to which reductions in alcohol advertising helped lower drinking rates and foster health and safety benefits.

Despite reductions in the amount of alcohol advertising, many of the remaining ads continue to target young people and high-risk ethnic populations and associate drinking with potentially hazardous activities. In order to begin correcting these remaining problems, the Federal Trade Commission should commence a comprehensive investigation of alcohol-advertising and promotional practices, focusing in particular on determining the extent to which advertising encourages consumption among young people and heavy drinkers. In addition, Congress should take action to:

  • Eliminate the tax deduction for alcohol advertising expenses;
  • Ban all broadcast and print alcohol advertising directed at or reaching large numbers of young people or heavy drinkers;
  • Require all remaining advertising to include specific, rotating warning messages about the potential risks of alcohol consumption;
  • Require broadcasters to balance alcohol advertising with effective messages that promote abstinence among young people and oppose heavy drinking among adults.

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Alcohol Policies Project
Center for Science in the Public Interest
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