Effects of showing risk in beer commercials to young drinkers.

Author:Zwarun, Lara

Advertising for alcoholic beverages is frequently criticized for contributing to irresponsible drinking behavior on the part of teenagers and young adults. Although alcohol is a legal product for consumption in the United States by people who are at least 21 years old (Eigen & Noble, 1996), many underage people drink, often heavily (Eigen & Noble, 1998; Office for Substance Abuse Prevention, 1991; Presley, Leichter, & Mielman, 1999), increasing the likelihood of automobile accidents, unplanned sex, violence (Eigen & Noble, 1996; Siegal, 1999), and alcohol abuse and addiction (Grant & Dawson, 1998).

Although alcohol manufacturers certainly have the right to advertise their products to a legal audience, there is concern about the content of their marketing messages, particularly as perceived by young people. For example, content analyses of commercials for beer--the most heavily advertised type of alcohol on television (Jacobson, Atkins, & Hacker, 1983; Madden & Grube, 1994) and the most popular beverage among minors (Eigen & Noble, 1998)--report they often portray attractive characters, enhanced sexuality, and fun and excitement (Postman, Nystrom, Strate, & Weingartner, 1988; Wenner, 1991), images that appeal to young people (Wallack, Grube, Madden, & Breed, 1990). In addition, many beer commercials feature activities that, although glamorous, would be risky if combined with drinking, such as motorcycling, boating, and skiing (Madden & Grube, 1994; Zwarun & Farrar, 2005).

Although the alcohol industry denies that their advertising causes underage drinking, social science research has established that alcohol ads contribute to expectations that drinking alcohol will be a positive experience and that these beliefs, known as expectancies, predict drinking (Aitken, Eadie, Leathar, McNeill, & Scott, 1988; Atkin, Hocking, & Block, 1984; Austin & Meili, 1994; Grube & Wallack, 1994; Wallack, Cassady, & Grube, 1990). For example, many underage drinkers believe that drinking will enhance their social lives (Smith & Goldman, 1995), whereas nondrinkers are less likely to believe this, and heavy underage drinking can be predicted by the belief that alcohol enhances a drinker's physical abilities (Brown, Christiansen, & Goldman, 1987; Darkes & Goldman, 1993).

Given that some beer ads show social rewards and risky physical activities, this study seeks to establish whether such ads contribute to the expectancies that predict drinking, as well as to determine if other individual characteristics are correlated to such beliefs. This is accomplished by comparing the beliefs of a group of college students who were exposed to beer commercials to those of a group who were not. In addition, to identify the effects of beer ads that feature risky activities, students who saw those ads were queried about what they thought they saw in them and whether they found risky drinking behavior more acceptable than those who were not exposed.

Literature Review

Content studies of alcohol advertising, both of television and print ads, indicate that common elements are humor, sociability, physical attractiveness, success, romance, adventure, fun activities, celebrity endorsers, animation, and rock music (Atkin, 1987; Atkin & Block, 1981; Breed & De Foe, 1984; Finn & Strickland, 1982; Kelly, Slater, Karan, & Hunn, 2000; Postman et al., 1988; Wallack, Grube, et al., 1990; Zwarun & Farrar, 2005). These components make alcohol advertising popular with young people, who can recall the ads, identify their sponsors, and report liking them (Aitken et al., 1988; Grube, 1993; Wallack, Cassady, et al., 1990).

Although the beer industry claims that their "advertising is a legitimate effort by brewers to make consumers aware of the particular types, brands, and prices of malt beverages available" (Beer Institute, 1997, p. 1), fact-based information about alcoholic beverages is not as common in alcohol advertising as lifestyle themes that stress the social benefits of drinking (Atkin & Block, 1981; Finn & Strickland, 1982; Zwarun & Farrar, 2005).

With respect to physical effects of drinking, voluntary self-regulatory advertising guidelines maintained by the beer industry prohibit portrayals of drinking "before or during activities that require alertness or coordination" (Beer Institute, 1997) but do not prohibit such activities and drinking from appearing in the same ad. The distilled spirits and wine industries maintain self-regulatory advertising codes with a similar guideline, as do some individual alcoholic beverage companies.

Despite this, many beer ads--33% in one study (Madden & Grube, 1994)--show drinking accompanying physical or outdoor activities, such as swimming, boating, skiing, or hanging out by a pool or beach (Finn & Strickland, 1982; Grube, 1993; Madden & Grube, 1994; Zwarun & Farrar, 2005). Commercials like these are instances of "creative circumvention" of the self-regulatory guideline, in that they follow its exact wording (no drinking explicitly before or during the activity) while containing images that disregard its spirit (ostensibly to avoid sending a message that it is safe to mix alcohol with activities requiring coordination). Although the risky activities shown may be harmful when participants are under the influence of alcohol, the ads do not address this potential danger. In fact, moderation messages, statements that implore people to drink responsibly, such as "Think when you drink," are relatively infrequent in alcohol advertising, appearing in fewer than 3% of ads (Atkin & Block, 1981 ; Madden & Grube, 1994; Zwarun & Farrar, 2005).

In sum, the themes that occur most frequently in alcohol advertising, particularly in television commercials, are those that link drinking alcohol with a certain type of lifestyle (Atkin & Block, 1981; Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1990), by emphasizing social success, physical attractiveness, and adventure (Postman et al., 1988). In addition, some ads associate drinking alcohol with being physically adventurous; although careful to comply with self-regulation, these ads do not portray consequences of or risks associated with drinking. It is therefore possible that this content, as well as its popularity among teens and young adults, contributes to the expectancies that predict drinking, particularly by underage people.

Alcohol Advertising, Expectancies, and Use

Concern over media effects exists because it is known that people learn largely from observing behavior in others (Bandura, 1977) and the media are a rich source of these observations (Bandura, 2002). Bandura (1977) posits that humans possess a symbolizing capacity, or the ability to process and transform the depiction of experiences performed by others into internal models. It is therefore not just observation of other people's experiences that helps determine future thoughts and actions but, more specifically, how other people's experiences are perceived (Bandura, 1977). If the modeled behavior produces a reward instead of punishment, and/or if the behavior is modeled by attractive, appealing characters, modeling is more likely to occur (Austin & Knaus, 2000; Potter, 1997). It is quite possible, therefore, that in the case of alcohol advertising, the implied reward of a fun, social lifestyle and the prevalence of attractive characters increases the likelihood of modeling the behavior seen in the ads (Abrams & Niaura, 1987).

Alcohol expectancy theory (Goldman, Brown, & Christiansen, 1987) is an extension of social cognitive theory that has been applied to drinking behavior with much empirical success. According to alcohol expectancy theory, modeled portrayals in alcohol advertising can result in the formation of beliefs that drinking is socially and physically rewarding (Abrams & Niaura, 1987; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002), resulting in intentions to drink and in drinking behavior (Austin & Meili, 1994). The consistent nature of the portrayals in modern alcohol advertising can provide young people with ritualized ideas about the proper contexts for drinking and contribute to the development of strong expectations that alcohol will enhance social and physical pleasure and ease (Abrams & Niaura, 1987).

Studies have revealed that children who are more aware of alcohol advertising hold more positive beliefs about drinking, which in turn mediate an increase in their intention to drink as adults (Grube, 1993). By sixth grade, many children understand and can report psychological antecedents and consequences of drinking (Gaines, Brooks, Maisto, Dietrich, & Shagena, 1988). Grube (1995) found that young people with positive expectancies about alcohol are more likely to say they intend to drink in the future. Aitken et al. (1988) found that underage drinking was correlated with appreciation of alcohol advertising; Atkin et al. (1984) found significant associations between exposure to alcohol advertising and both self-reported consumption of liquor among teenagers and intent to drink in the future. Attention to alcohol advertising has been found to be significantly related to beliefs about the social facilitation aspects of beer (e.g., "Drinking beer is a good way to relax"; "It's easier for people to get to know each other after they've had a few beers") and the idea that beer is "cool" (e.g., "Drinking beer makes life more exciting"; "lt is definitely cool to drink a beer"; Wallack, Cassady, et al., 1990, p. 35). Such research suggests that alcohol advertising can be a causal factor in children's predisposition to drinking by affecting their expectancies (Atkin, Neuendorf, & McDermott, 1983; Grube, 1995; Grube & Wallack, 1994; Wallack, Cassady, et al., 1990).

Extensive research on alcohol expectancies has consistently found that the items can be reduced into either six or seven factors. These factors are (a) alcohol is a powerful positive transforming agent, (b) alcohol can enhance or impede social behavior, (c)...

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