Engs, Ruth C. [Ed.], Controversies in the Addition's Field. CHAPTER 14: Alcohol Advertising: Regulation Can Help. Kimberly A. Neuendorf, Ph.D.

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Alcohol Advertising: Regulation Can Help

Kimberly A. Neuendorf, Ph.D.


Alcohol is a drug, its use tolerated by virtue of its long history. But if one's exposure to alcohol use was limited to media images, one would be left with the impression that alcohol provides a useful medium for making and keeping friends, for handling problems, and or relaxing. Particularly in advertising, and generally in other fictional representations of alcohol use, the images are overwhelmingly positive. Treatment of alcohol related problems is avoided, as is any discussion of appropriate drinking contexts.

A History of Self-Regulation. There is a double-edged public perception of alcohol use—innocuous or even healthful in moderation', destructive in excess and for youthful users. This duality makes regulation in this area notably controversial. Completely prohibited in some nations, alcohol advertising in the U.S. has enjoyed a long history of self-regulation. Younger (1987) provides a review of this history, citing codes of practice for industry organizations such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the United States Brewing Association ("Beer advertising should neither suggest nor encourage overindulgence...drinking by individuals below the legal age of purchase... drunk driving..." p. 1146), and the Wine Institute ("Any advertisement which has an appeal to persons below the legal drinking age is unacceptable," p. 1147).

Self-regulation in media industries has also played a role. For example, prior to 1982, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Radio and Television Codes effectively kept hard liquor ads off the air in most markets via self-monitoring (National Association of Broadcasters, 1978a;b). Ironically, the U.S. Justice Department's concern such uniform standards constituted a violation of anti-trust statutes resulted in the elimination of the Codes. This has been followed by isolated cases of hard liquor ads on TV and radio (Tucker, Hovland and Wilcox, 1987; lcox, Hovland and Fletcher, 1988), while broadcast network standards and practices units voluntarily keep hard liquor ads off national television.

While many would claim that self-regulation is working and is the optimal method of maintaining a fair marketplace of ideas while exercising some social control, others argue that such voluntary guidelines are


easily sidestepped. For example,hard liquor advertising has aired for years (even prior to 1982) on Hispanic broadcast services, and has with stood a number of critical challenges2.

Alcohol Advertising as Commercial Speech. Since the mid- 1970s, commercial speech has been afforded First Amendment protection. Case law has supported a laissez faire information environment, in which audiences serve as juries deciding the fate of propositional statements in ads. Theoretically, pro-alcohol messages will be balanced by cautionary messages in public service announcements (PSAs), news reports, etc. However, there is compelling evidence from the case of cigarette advertising that such an informational mix is difficult to achieve (Bagdikian, 1983). Weis and Burke (1986) cite a litany of examples of the tobacco industry's financial pressure on media institutions to suppress information that would threaten tobacco sales, even to the point of censoring news reports. As recently as 1984, a Time magazine health news supplement, written "in cooperation with the American Academy of Family Physicians," was excised of all negative references to smoking, much to the chagrin of the surprised AAFP (p.62). While there is less direct evidence that such a conspiracy of silence exists for alcohol issues, at least two social scientific studies have found a relationship between the amount of alcohol advertising in a magazine and a lack of editorial content critical of alcohol (Tankard and Peirce, 1982; Minkler, Wallack and Madden, 1987).

The Supreme Court refined its stand on commercial speech in the 1980 Central Hudson case, in which the New York State Public Utilities Commission sought to promote energy conservation by banning electric utility advertising. This groundbreaking case established a four-part test for government regulation of advertising:

In the 1986 Posadas case, the Supreme Court applied this four-part test to a Puerto Rican law prohibiting locally-aimed advertising for the commonwealth's gambling casinos (Posadas de Puerto Rico Associates vs. Tourism Company, 1986). In a novel interpretation of the second part of the Central Hudson test, Justice Rehnquist found "reasonable" the legislators' mere belief that such advertising would increase gambling by locals (Trauth and Huffman, 1987).

A "Direct" Advancement of a State Interest. Thus, it is no longer incumbent upon the regulating body to show a definitive, causal impact of


the advertising upon the public. The presence of a legislative "belief" that restrictions on the commercial speech will advance the state interest is enough—in the case of alcohol advertising, the belief that regulating alcohol ads will decrease consumption and/or abuse would be sufficient. Prior to Posadas, it was generally assumed that alcohol advertising regulation was an impossibility, due to a lack of definitive evidence for a causal, negative impact of alcohol advertising on the public.

The probabilistic nature of social scientific research methods has prohibited a conclusion that exposure to alcohol ads causes individuals to

However, a reasonable belief that alcohol advertising tends to contribute to each of these might be supported by social scientific evidence (Neuendorf, 1987). Let us briefly consider each.

Does alcohol advertising increase consumption? Econometric studies have found no substantial, consistent relationship between amount of advertising and aggregate alcohol sales in a given state or nation (Simon, 1969; Borgeois and Barnes, 1979; Wilcox, 1985; Ornstein and Hanssens, 1985; Smart, 1988). The strongest set of relationships was found by Franke and Wilcox (1987), who discovered spot TV wine advertising and distilled spirit advertising in magazines to predict relevant consumption, with no prediction for beer consumption. When the individual is the unit of analysis, the results are still mixed. Experimental studies have failed to identify a link between a single exposure to alcohol ads and subsequent drinking among adults (McCarty and Ewing, 1983; Kohn, Smart and Ogborne, 1984; Kohn and Smart, 1984; Sobell et al., 1986). Surveys designed to gauge correlations between self-reported long-term alcohol ad exposure and alcohol consumption have provided little evidence of effects. The only national survey, conducted a decade ago by Michigan State University researchers, found no relationship for adults, but did find a small, significant relationship between advertising exposure and beer and liquor consumption for the 665 teens in the sample (Atkin and Block, 1981; Atkin, Hocking, and Block, 1984).

Does alcohol advertising contribute to alcohol abuse? Analyzing the same MSU data cited above, Atkin, Neuendorf, and McDermott (1983) found two types of alcohol abuse drinking to excess and drinking and driving—significantly related to self-report alcohol ad exposure among the national sample of teens and young adults3. In a median split, high exposure subjects reported an average consumption of 4.5 drinks during an evening at a bar or party, with 33% reporting a five-drink-plus bout at least weekly, and 39% reporting drinking and driving in the last month. Low exposure subjects reported averages of 2.9 drinks, 16%, and 25%, respectively. Other studies have found meager contributions of alcohol


exposure, but strong effects for peer influence among teens (Strickland, 1983) and weak but statistically significant effects of alcohol advertising among adults (Neuendorf, 1987).

Does alcohol advertising encourage young people to start drinking? Strickland's (1983) survey of 772 "current drinker" teens found that although exposure to alcohol advertising was significantly related to consumption, its effect was eclipsed by that of peer associations. The MSU group found small but statistically significant correlations between advertising exposure and both beer and liquor consumption for teens, which held even when controlling for peer and parental influence, age, gender, and church attendance (Atkin, Hocking and Block, 1984)5.

There is growing evidence that alcohol advertisers use special appeals to reach youthful audiences (Jacobson, Atkins, and Hacker, 1983; Neuendorf,1987), by down-playing the alcohol content of such products as wine coolers and marketing such related products as Spuds MacKenzie stuffed animals and T-shirts (Ehrlich, 1987). In a study of adolescent responses to liqueur ads in magazines (Neuendorf and Pearlman, 1988), one-third of all product identifications were wrong, mistaking the liqueur for a nonalcoholic beverage or food. Compared to hard liquor ads, the liqueur ads were seen as promoting products that were significantly more healthy and appropriate for a younger clientele. A 1987 national poll of fourth-graders by My Weekly Reader found only 26% thought a wine cooler a day was harmful; 26% said "many" of their peers had tried coolers (Ehrlich, 1987).

It also seems clear that youngsters pay close attention to alcohol ads, in some cases paying greater attention than do adults (Atkin et al., 1988). Of 100 children aged 10-14 asked to name their three favorite TV commercials, 20% named at least one beer or wine spot (Neuendorf, 1985). Experimental findings by the MSU group concluded that two types of appeals used widely in alcohol advertising—celebrity endorsement and sexual appeals—significantly enhanced a number of adolescents' positive impressions of the ads and the products advertised, but did not correspondingly influence adults' evaluations. In fact, the older the respondent, the more negative the response to sex (Atkin and Block, 1981).

In summary, there is little evidence that alcohol advertising contributes to aggregate or individual consumption, there is some evidence that alcohol ad exposure is related to a greater likelihood of drinking to excess or drunk driving. Alcohol ads do seem to attract and persuade a youthful audience, although peer influences are generally more powerful. With the evidence to date, it is impossible to pinpoint the causal direction of these relationships—e.g.,perhaps those with a predilection to drink dangerously are attracted to alcohol ads as reinforcement for their actions.

Alcohol Advertising: False and Misleading? Of course, the four part Central Hudson test is


irrelevant if the advertising is false or misleading, in which case the authority of the FTC and BATE comes into play. Just as social science's probabilistic nature has historically limited the legal application of its findings, the receiver orientation of behavioral research often stands at odds with the definitional dogma of regulation. That is, regulators hope to find a flaw in the ad that makes it false and misleading, while a behavioral scientist would examine the audience's perceptions of the ad.

For example, there is no doubt in this researcher's mind that most children are misled by Saturday morning puffery and fail to understand most TV spot disclaimers (Bryant and Anderson, 1983; Alwitt and Mitchell, 1985). Even adults are prone to cognitive and attitudinal impacts. Gerbner's oft-supported cultivation theory states that repeated exposure to consistent media images will create beliefs and expectations about the real world. This effect is maximized when the individual has few real life comparative models, and when the individual strongly identifies with the media models. Heavy TV viewers, for example, are found to be more fearful of what they perceive to be a crime-wracked real world (Gerbuer, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli, 1980). In this light, much of what the ad industry calls "lifestyle" advertising (Nathanson-Moog, 1984) could be construed as false and misleading, as could virtually all alcohol advertising aimed at youngsters6.

What implicit promises are commonly found in alcohol advertising? A content analysis by Finn and Strickland (1982) found TV ads to emphasize sociopsychological themes—70% of the sampled ads associated consumption with "camaraderie", 41% with "relaxation", and 38% used humor. The MSU group also found the presentation of many favorable contexts of consumption—social camaraderie (in 54% of TV ads and 10% of magazine ads), escape (32% and 14%), romance (19% and 16%), and elegance (16% and 18%) (Atkin andBlock,1981). Strickland and Finn (1984) concluded that magazine alcohol ads are highly likely to include characters that demographically match the target audience, inviting stronger acceptance of the implicit claims.

Positive images of drinking in alcohol ads are supported by a consistent media message environment of condoned social imbibing (Greenberg et al., 1980; Neuendorf, 1990). Gerbner and colleagues (1982) found over one-third of prime-time TV characters were alcohol users, but only 1% were abusers. A 1975 content analysis counted 8.5 alcohol beverages per hour vs.7.4 soft drinks per hour in soap operas (Lowery, 1980). And, 62% of all beverages were identified as alcoholic in a 1977 study of TV sitcoms and dramas (Breed and DeFoe, 1981).

Drinking in fictional media is often depicted as a means of dealing


with stress or as a way to relax in conversation with friends (Pfautz, 1962; Lowry, 1981; Neuendorf, 1985), though images of alcoholics, specifically, are quite negative (Cook and Lewington, 1979; Signorielli, 1987). Amazingly, one analysis found drinking occurred during or just before work in 25% of cases; heavy drinking was excused or rationalized in 39% of sitcom cases, with humor the usual mechanism (Breed and DeFoe,1981).A recent study reports a steady increase in TV drinking since 1969, with no significant increase in the proportion mentioning harmful effects (Signorielk, 1987). TV drinkers are also more likely to be involved in a romantic relationship (57% of drinkers vs. 35% of non-drinkers).

Only a couple of studies have linked exposure to such positive images to audience perceptions, however. Atkin and Block (1981) found that respondents heavily exposed to alcohol ads perceived the typical drinker as more fun-loving, happier and more good-looking. A survey of 100 adolescents found heavier TV viewers to 'oe significantly more likely to think "all people who drink are happy" and "you have to drink to have fun at a sporting event" (Neuendorf, 1985).

Advertising agencies that handle alcohol products admit that consumers are "buying a symbol" (Message in a bottle, 1988), but thus far the glamorization of liquor has not qualified as "misleading." In Oklahoma and Mississippi cases, ads that identified alcohol consumption with "the good life" (Trauth and Huffman, 1987, p. 417) and that projected "an image of wine drinkers as successful, fun-loving people, without warning of the dangers of alcohol" (Younger, 1987, p. 1173) were deemed by federal courts to not be misleading. But deceptive communication is defined as a message "having the tendency or capacity to deceive a significant portion of the audience to whom the message is addressed" (Younger, 1987, p. 1151). This capacity is testable using survey andi experimental methods, and could readily be put to the test7.


In the current U.S. legal environment, alcohol advertising regulation is feasible, a major turn around from the pre- Posadas era. Probabilistic evidence from social science could provide legislators with a reasonable belief that action would help reduce alcohol abuse and or use by youngsters, or would help counteract a media view of alcohol consumption as useful and glamorous. Regulation is unlikely to result in a dramatic drop in overall consumption, but could assist in making alcohol consumption safer and in better preparing users for the negative aspects of alcohol use.

Evidence from the case of cigarette advertising leads us to believe that the most effective type of regulation would involve enforced counteradvertising, rather than a prohibition against alcohol ads". In the 1960s the


requirement that TV tobacco ads be matched by PSAs warning of the dangers of smoking was accompanied by a drop in smoking rates; the 1971 ban on tobacco advertising on TV and radio was followed by a rise. Cultivation theory would predict such an outcome—when the message environment is homogeneously pro-alcohol, public perceptions are likely to follow. A message mix would limit this type of "mainstreaming."

While it may be that "price, overall availability and social influences are likely to be the most potent influences on . . . consumption" (Smart, 1988, p.315), alcohol advertising is a socially controllable influence, one that seems to reinforce alcohol abuse and youthful consumption, and offers oblique, unrealistic images of a safe and happy drinking world.


1. Citing a series of medical studies, Younger (1987) concludes that "the danger of alcohol arises only from its abuse, not from mere consumetion" (p.1151). Moderate drinking may in fact be associated with some positive health benefits—e.g., lower levels of coronary heart disease.

2. The Telemundo network resisted pressure to drop liquor advertising during a 1987 attack from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Colford, 1987).

3. Multiple regression analyses controlled for self-reported family and peer drinking patterns, interpersonal encouragement to drink, and demographics (age, gender, social status, community size and religiosity). For both excessive consumption and hazardous drinking, the Contribution of alcohol advertising exposure held significant after these controls, at p < .05.

4. The partial correlation between self-reported exposure and drinking was .32, controlling for age, sex, race and total TV viewing. After the addition of peer influences, the partial fell to .18.

5. Beta weights of .10 and .34, respectively, both p < .05.

6. It should be kept in mind that in an alternate legal light, this potentially misleading nature of alcohol advertising could serve as an additional impetus for legislators to "believe" in injurious results.

7. One additional unique way in which alcohol ads may use covert tactics to make implicit sexual promises is through subliminal embeds. This controversial view has been supported by two studies in recent years, which indicate that subliminal cues do exist in magazine liquor ads and that they can affect attitudes and sexual motives (Ruth and Mosatche, 1985; Kilbourne, Painton, and Ridley, 1985).

8. Alcohol advertising bans in European nations and Canadian provinces have not been accompanied by decreased overall consumption (Smart, 1988).



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