Alcoholic Beverage Ads and Portrayals on TV

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Alcohol beverage ads on television are often criticized by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) and similar interest groups.

However, Julie Johnson Bradford of the Raleigh News & Observer makes an insightful observation:

“A 12 -year-old watches an ad and sees highly attractive young grown-ups spending social time together, enjoying exotic locations and relishing the product being advertised, all accompanied by great music on the soundtrack. If this is an ad for a car, the use of which is forbidden to young people, it’s fine; if it is beer, the ad is corrupting.”

Ms. Bradford then raises an important question:

“Why is it OK for young people to get a good impression of the cars they hope to drive someday (‘Vroom, vroom,” anyone?) but not OK for then to think of beer in a similar positive light?

“Industry or critics, can’t we bring ourselves to say that alcoholic beverages are one of the neat perks of adulthood: They’re fun, they bring people together, they taste wonderful. I don’t see why we should pretend otherwise in front of the children.”

But won’t alcohol ads lead young people to drink? No. Research for decades by governments, health agencies and universities around the world has never found that such ads induce non-drinkers to begin drinking. Alcohol ads continue because both research and experience demonstrates that effective advertisers can increase their market share. They do so at the expense of their competitors, who lose market share.

The United States Supreme court has held that public mass communications cannot be kept at the level appropriate only for the sandbox. Alcohol ads can’t be censored simply because they may be seen by large numbers of citizens under the age of 21.

Some critics call for all portrayals of alcohol consumption in TV programs to be followed by negative consequences following from that consumption. Although well-meaning, these critics fail to make the essential distinction between moderate and immoderate alcohol consumption. Both abstaining and drinking in moderation are equally acceptable behaviors. What is never acceptable under any circumstances is the abuse of alcohol. Therefore, only the latter should be stigmatized.

Associating moderate consumption with inappropriate behavior is likely to be counterproductive. People act in conformity to their expectations. If they believe that drinking in moderation causes people to act inappropriately, they will tend to act that way when consuming even modest amounts. In experiments, people who are falsely led to believe that they have been drinking more than a moderate amount of alcohol tend to act intoxicated although they are completely sober. Therefore, it’s important not to create the false belief that moderate drinking causes people to act inappropriately.

On the other hand, it is appropriate to show that negative consequences can flow from the abuse of alcohol. This is simply a reflection of reality.

 

Reference:

  • Bradford, Julie Johnson. This ad’s for you -- or is it? The News & Observer, February 17, 2006.

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