Alcohol Ads Have Little Impact on Consumption

Alcohol Ads Have Little Impact on ConsumptionDespite growing concern about the effect of alcohol advertising and regulatory changes prohibiting the ads in some places, a new study has suggested that there is little, if any, overall impact of alcohol advertising on how much Americans drink. The research showed that while advertising affects the type of alcohol consumed or the brand chosen, more advertising doesn’t directly lead to more drinking. The authors suggest that moves to ban advertising may not accomplish their intended goal of reducing drinking, and they instead argue that providing information on the risks of alcohol consumption is a more logical approach to cutting down on America’s drinking.

Alcohol Consumption, Advertising Over Four Decades

The basic aim of the research was to look at the quantity of alcohol consumed in America between 1971 and 2012 and see if it correlates with the money spent on advertising. Over the years chosen, the researchers found that alcohol consumption per capita remained relatively stable, meaning that when increases in population were taken into account, there was no real change in the amount Americans were drinking. There were changes in consumption among the three types of alcohol identified—beer, wine and spirits—but not for all types combined.

As for advertising, the amount spent has increased by 400 percent since 1971, strongly suggesting that there is no relationship between the expenditure on alcohol ads and drinking in America. The researchers looked at the issue from a theoretical perspective as well as by analyzing the data, and the conclusion was the same in either case—if any relationship exists, it’s a weak one. However, changes in demographics, taxes on alcohol and income level have had an impact on the amount of alcohol consumed.

Lead author Gary Wilcox commented that, “Since the overall alcohol market is not growing, competition for a greater share of that market is intense and constant. Brands try to increase their revenue through stronger, more innovative marketing efforts like advertising. For example, liquor brands that took advantage of the recent ability to advertise in the electronic media saw market share gains associated with their ad spending.”

Restrictions on Alcohol Advertising

Despite the issues with the theory that advertising alcohol has an impact on the amount people drink, there have been moves to legislate against advertising in recent years. In particular, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have banned alcohol advertising on municipal property, and San Francisco has prohibited advertising of alcoholic beverages on public transport. Around the world, other countries—including Russia and Turkey—have instituted more wide-ranging bans on alcohol advertising.

Wilcox says moves like this probably won’t have their intended effect, adding, “Instead, a more logical alternative would be to communicate as much information as possible to the public about the subject and encourage all viewpoints so our society makes an autonomous, rational choice regarding alcohol consumption.”

Why Advertising Doesn’t Affect Drinking Rates

Overall, the study might have what seems to be a fairly surprising conclusion, but really this is something that should have been expected. After all, why did you have your first drink? Was it because you saw an ad for a particular brand—having never had a desire to drink before—and then all of a sudden couldn’t think of anything aside from heading out to buy alcohol? Or was it—like it is for most people—a combination of a desire to try out new (and potentially dangerous) activities, because you expected that drinking would be enjoyable or even to fit in with your friends? Add genetic susceptibility and psychological health issues into the mix and you have a much more plausible explanation for who starts drinking and who doesn’t than their levels of exposure to advertising would provide.

As the researchers concluded, it’s possible that advertising has a limited effect on alcohol consumption, but as anybody with addiction knows, the things that really drive alcohol consumption are the poor psychological coping mechanisms many of us use to deal with our problems, likely spurred on by adult role models we looked up to doing the same thing. We learn (incorrectly) that alcohol is one way people deal with their stress, or that it “chases away the blues,” or any number of anecdotally-claimed effects that bear close resemblance to the reasons people take any drugs.

This is why Wilcox argues that a realistic discussion of the risks and assumed benefits of alcohol will be more effective than preventing brands from advertising. Explaining the risks of alcohol to people (particularly teens, but adults too), covering the chance of addiction, the impact on the liver, the risks of cancer, the risk of heart disease and the negative effect it has on depression, stress and anxiety, are much more direct approaches to tackling the issue.

 Fighting Addiction No. 1 Priority

With a rational, evidence-based discussion of the risks of alcohol, we may be able to counteract harmful myths about alcohol consumption. These myths aren’t spread by alcohol advertisers—although they can be strengthened by TV and movie portrayals of drinking—they primarily come from people in the real world, like friends and parents, whom we can’t control so easily. This study drives home the point that advertising has only a limited impact on drinking, and in the process should encourage us to adopt more direct and useful approaches: increasing the tax on alcohol, providing information on the short- and long-term risks and helping those with alcoholism find support.