The Complexity of Advertising Research
Targeting can also make measurement difficult: CAMY and other groups opposed to alcohol advertising often make much of measures of the proportion of under-21s exposed to alcohol ads compared to adults, saying in several reports that they've found that youth are exposed to more ads than adults. But these measures are controversial for several reasons, not the least of which is that 19 and 20-year olds are legal adults by every other criterion used other than drinking age. It's nearly impossible to target 21-year olds, for example, and not bring in 19 and 20-year olds as well. Most of the "over-exposure" to alcohol ads that activists cite occurs in the intermediate age range - not the group most parents are worried about when they think about under-age drinkers.
Further, some people will be affected by certain ads, while others will respond in the exact opposite way. And the same person may respond differently to the same ad at different times in his or her life, or even according to different moods. A parent, for example, may find a frightening anti-alcohol ad effective, while a teenager may find the risks associated with drinking to be part of the thrill. A teen who has just lost a friend in a drunk-driving accident may respond one way, while a teen who is drunk at a party may respond in another.
Gender, race, culture, and age all matter. The level of repetition matters (some people like an ad at first, then come to hate it; others find that it grows on them over time). Context can be important. Certain media may be more effective for some people, certain messages more effective for others. Fashion trends also make a big difference - specific drinks, like particular drugs, go in and out of style in particular cultures and subcultures. Demand, related to these shifts, can drive advertising just as advertising drives demand. And the mixed messages American culture sends about alcohol and its significance in our rites of passage and celebrations further complicates these studies.
The research is clear, however, that banning advertising in only one or two media-say TV and radio-is ineffective, as advertising will increase in other media to fill the gap . While other media venues may then become saturated with ads, decreasing the effectiveness of each one, the overall media climate returns to a similar level of saturation, as research on bans of tobacco advertising on television and radio have demonstrated.
What this will mean when these children reach adolescence remains an open question. Elementary school anti-drug and alcohol education programs often look very effective in producing the desired attitude changes among pre-adolescents, but they have been found to have little influence once the children hit puberty and are actually faced with decisions about drugs and alcohol .
A third study was done on actual teenagers, asking them to recall discussions of alcohol advertising that had been held during alcohol prevention classes. Those who recalled discussions of advertising offered more counter-arguments when presented with beer ads. Their resistance to beer commercials was predicted by how recently they had taken the class and by how extensive the discussion of advertising was. Whether this has an influence on behavior again remains to be seen; but given that media literacy approaches have been found to be helpful in fighting smoking, more research seems appropriate .
The FTC report found that there was "99%" compliance with the standard that alcohol ads should only be placed in media venues with an audience that is 50% over the age of 21. The alcoholic beverage industry has since agreed to raise the percent of legal drinkers in its ad audience to 70%. (This means that they promise not to advertise in media reaching a group in which more than 30% are under the legal drinking age.) Supporting the idea that advertising has little effect, the FTC concluded, "Although it is probable that some teens drink FMB's, teen drinking continued to decline during the period when these beverages were being aggressively marketed."
It is important to note that the opposite was true in the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland, both of which experienced massive increases in youth drinking when these "alco-pops" began to be widely promoted. In the UK, for example, drinking by under-16s has doubled in the last ten years. However, cultural attitudes toward young people drinking tend to be more relaxed in the UK, and this may have an influence on how advertising is perceived.
Once again, this shows the difficulty in teasing out the effects of advertising from the effects of broader social trends and the complex influences that affect teen drinking behavior.
Minority Youth and Alcohol
As STATS has previously noted, African-American youth are actually far less likely to drink than whites. The CAMY report itself notes that while 21.7% of white youth report binge drinking in the last month, the figure for black youth was just 10.5 %. This fact alone does little to bolster the idea that heavy exposure to alcohol advertising in itself has a large influence on youth.
More importantly, there are real success stories here. The "designated driver" campaign of the 1980's was highly effective in making drunk driving socially unacceptable and in introducing the concept of a useful social role for non-drinkers. A year after the campaign was introduced, reported use of designated drivers rose 10 %. As more and more people became aware of the campaign, alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell significantly. Some anti-tobacco advertising has also been found to significantly affect smoking rates among youth.
Unfortunately, t here is also a body of research that finds anti-drug and anti-alcohol advertising to be ineffective on adolescents . Research on the effects of anti-alcohol ads on teenagers has found that they increased awareness of the possible negative effects of drinking, but they did not cut teen drinking itself.
More recent research has tended to buttress these conclusions, at least with regard to illegal drugs. For example, the final evaluation of the billion-dollar anti-drug media campaign initiated by President Clinton and carried forward by President Bush found that it had no effect on youth drug use. At the same time, it found "unfavorable trends in youth anti-marijuana beliefs." (There was no evidence, however, that actual marijuana initiation increased as a result of these unfavorable trends) As a result of repeated negative evaluations of the campaign, funding has been cut for the evaluation portion of the program but not the ad campaign itself.
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