Study links binge drinking to ads

By Laura Bryn Sisson

Advertising effectively promotes alcohol brands to teenagers, researchers from Dartmouth Medical School and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found in a study published in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Dartmouth pediatricians Susanne Tanski, Auden McClure and James Sargent found a correlation between alcohol companies’ annual advertising expenditures and underage drinkers’ preferred brands in the study titled “Alcohol Brand Preference and Binge Drinking Among Adolescents.”

The researchers also found that respondents who said they had a favorite brand were significantly more likely to report having engaged in binge drinking than those who did not specify a favorite.

“Youths chose distilled spirit brands in large numbers, brands preferred by youth have tended to have high advertising expenditures, and choosing a favorite brand was associated with binge drinking,” the researchers concluded.

The study was the fifth wave of a national survey, Tanski said in an interview with The Dartmouth. This sample, which was taken in 2009, was the first time that subjects had been asked about their favorite brand of alcohol, because researchers did not previously believe it was age-appropriate to ask 16 to 20-year-olds about their alcohol preferences, Tanski said.

Tanski said the relationship between brand favoritism and binge drinking is stronger than the relationship between brand favoritism and advertising, which she described as “moderate.”

“The important take-home message is that kids who said they have a favorite brand were far more likely to binge drink,” Tanski said.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said they had a favorite brand of alcohol, with Smirnoff and Budweiser leading as the first and second favorite brands among women, respectively, and Budweiser and Smirnoff as the first and second favorite brands among men.

The correlation between binge drinking and brand favoritism “suggests that the ‘drink responsibly’ message is being swamped by other advertising messages that associate alcohol brands with partying and drinking to excess,” Tanski said in a DHMC press release.

The binge drinking rate among respondents who said they had no favorite brand was 11 percent, compared to a binge rate between 28 and 73 percent among those with a favorite brand, according to the study.

Seventy-three percent of male and 64 percent of female respondents who specified Coors as their favorite brand also said they had binged. The study defined binging as consuming five or more drinks in a row in the past 30 days, according to Tanski.

In a sixth wave of data collection, 3,400 previously unsampled 15 to 23-year-olds were shown images of alcohol advertisements and asked to identify which images they had seen before, Tanski said. The new data have not yet been processed, so Tanski said she could not draw any conclusions.

Future studies will also measure brand consumption, according to David Jernigan, an author of the study and associate professor at the Bloomberg School.

The Bloomberg School tracked different brands’ advertising expenditures in the published study, while the DMS team conducted survey research, Jernigan said in an interview with The Dartmouth. The Bloomberg team also consulted with the Dartmouth team on some of the most recent survey questions.

“The bottom line is every marketer wants to have the product user select their brand as their favorite,” Jernigan said. “Half [of respondents] chose a distilled spirits brand, so the distilled spirits brands are clearly making inroads into the adolescent market.”

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States lifted a ban on television advertising in 1996, and adolescent exposure to television advertising of alcohol “has increased significantly since 2001,” the study reported, citing statistics from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.

“These findings support the premise that alcohol advertising plays a role in youth consumption patterns and that more effective means are needed to reduce youth exposure to alcohol advertising,” researchers wrote in the study.

Tanski explained that there could be factors driving alcohol consumption that are unrelated to advertising expenditures, but that the study’s hypothesis was still strong.

She described a Captain Morgan advertisement in which one partygoer explains the number of shots in a half-gallon of rum to his friend. This commerical was an attempt to portray Captain Morgan as a “partying brand,” she said. Tanski noted that Captain Morgan is “a common favorite among young people.”

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