The alcoholic beverage industry is more highly regulated than many others because of long-standing concerns about vulnerable people. Both industry self-regulatory practices and government regulations are largely based on concerns about the risks of excessive consumption and the need for consumers to reach a level of physical and social maturity before becoming consumers.
When it comes to alcohol product advertising, the key restrictions involve voluntary self-regulation by industry. For example, websites for alcoholic beverages often voluntarily limit access to people who claim they are of legal drinking age. And, both the Distilled Spirits Council and the Beer Institute recommend advertising be placed "only where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be of legal purchase age." The Wine Institute similarly recommends 70 percent as their industry guideline.
That such restrictions on alcohol product advertising are necessary was particularly well demonstrated this week by a new health communication study published by JAMA Pediatrics. The study is titled, "Cued Recall of Alcohol Advertising on Television and Underage Drinking Behavior." It was a two-year longitudinal study conducted by highly qualified researchers from Dartmouth University, Brown University, and Kiel Germany.
One key finding of this panel study is that underage viewers of television advertising are only slightly less likely than persons of legal age to have seen alcohol advertising. This points to a paradox concerning the 70 to 72 percent industry guideline. When applied to single advertisements, the voluntary guidelines may seem reasonable, yet collectively, the total amount of advertising by the alcohol product industry can be seen as overwhelming the underage audience. For example, even if the underage audience for one individual advertisement is let's say 10 percent, continuing exposure to the many other alcohol product advertisements will still result in very high media reach and frequency of exposure to the underage audience. The study shows the need to adjust the 70 to 72 percent industry guideline to a much higher level.
The television audience demographics and traditional advertising line-up for the Super Bowl underscore the concern about the voluntary guidelines. Recent Nielsen audience data for the Super Bowl show that about 30 percent of the youth ages 10 to 21 are watching the game.
This figure from a February 12, 2010 Nielsen Newswire public relations release shows that the 2010 Super Bowl was viewed by about 25 percent of youth ages 10 to 13; about 30 percent of youth ages 14 to 17 and about 33 percent of youth ages 18 to 21 (see area of the added red dotted lines). Clearly, from a media planning perspective, this annual broadcast can be seen as providing gateway access to the youth audience. Such a possibility is amplified when one recognizes that the most commonly employed narrative content of alcohol product advertising during this event involves imagery of particular interest to youth: emotive animal stories and slapstick comedy. Indeed, such advertising is traditionally among the most recalled and most liked shown during the event.
Now, much more is revealed by the new health communication study. For example, one frequently heard observation is that alcoholic beverage advertising is designed only to influence brand choice and brand loyalty and not to influence the decision to drink. Yet, this new study finds that "familiarity with and responses to images of television alcohol marketing was associated with the subsequent onset of drinking across a range of outcomes of varying severity among adolescents and young adults."
The need for "scientific fact-based" public policy is an often heard phrase these days. When it comes to the effects of alcohol product advertising, there is a substantial body of literature, and the facts seem pretty clear.