TCS Daily

Driven to Drink

By Iain Murray - December 23, 2002 12:00 AM

Last week, the American Medical Association took new evidence that alcohol affects young brains worse than it does adult brains and used it to call for further restrictions on alcohol advertising. "We've known for years that alcohol makes kids dead," the AMA's vice president Michael Scotti told a press conference. "What we have here is evidence that it makes them dumb... . That's what makes this new." The call for advertising restrictions is not new, however, and in fact ignores the latest research.

The AMA wants no alcohol advertising on TV before 10pm, apparently ignorant of the existence of video recorders, or on programs that have 15 percent or more underage viewers. This latter point is echoed by a study released last week by the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth, a research body affiliated with Georgetown University, but funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It claims that alcohol advertisers are deliberately targeting young people because they advertise on programs that are watched disproportionately highly by people below the legal drinking age. CAMY issued a similar report earlier in the year with the same argument, this time focusing on alcohol adds in magazines.

But this whole argument is misplaced, based as it is on proportionality. Merely because a program is watched by proportionately more teens than there are teens in the population does not mean that the program, or its advertising, is aimed primarily at them. Of the top five teen television programs last year, for instance, three - Survivor, Friends and E.R. - are surely aimed at a general audience. The fact that alcohol advertisers ran 730 ads on them at a cost of $25 million does not indicate that they were attempting to snare young people into drinking. Indeed, the top teen program, 7th Heaven, contained only 5 alcohol ads last year, for the measly expense of $835, and the fifth ranked program had only 2 alcohol ads. Similarly small numbers of ads ran on other teen shows like Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. None at all ran on Smallville or One on One.

In fact, with any program where the target audience is the younger end of the adult population - people in their twenties and thirties - it is almost inevitable that teens will be over-represented, because other demographic categories will be under-represented. If you exclude the age groups under 10 and over 65, who are in no way the target of a program like Friends, you are essentially excluding 27 percent of the population, meaning that the 14 percent aged 11-19, who are naturally interested in the program, will inevitably be over-represented in the viewing audience. Calls for alcohol advertising to be banned on any program with 15 percent or greater youth audience are therefore bound to hit many programs that are not aimed at teens. When the restriction would hit such general audience late-night shows as Saturday Night Live or Late Night with Conan O'Brien, it is clear that it is too broad a restriction.

Moreover, the AMA's call also ignores the latest research into the effectiveness of advertising. When you see a car advert on Friends, does that make you think, "Hey, I think I'll buy a car" and get you down to the dealership tomorrow? No, and this has long been recognized. The effectiveness of advertising is not in getting you interested in the market in general, but in persuading you to go for one particular brand when you are already in the market. Thus you might not think about buying a car when you had no intention of doing so, but you might be more likely to buy a Jetta after seeing a Volkswagen advert when you are in the market for a new car. It seems that alcohol advertising is no different.

Researcher Jon P. Nelson of Penn State recently confirmed this hypothesis when he recently looked at the effectiveness of bans on advertising alcohol. He looked at the effectiveness of state-level bans of billboard advertising and then of broadcasting bans in foreign nations. He concluded that in neither case did advertising bans reduce either alcohol consumption or abuse. He also looked at advertising budgets in general and concluded that increasing budgets did not have the effect of expanding the alcohol market.

In other words, alcohol advertising does not affect people's willingness to buy alcohol. Psychiatrists have long argued that young people's willingness to engage in risky behavior, whether it be drugs, sex, smoking or alcohol consumption has more to do with peer pressure and thrill-seeking than it does with any other factor. If the AMA really wants to protect children and teens from early exposure to alcohol, it should seek to address those factors. CAMY should also call off the dogs. Preventing the alcohol industry from advertising on programs aimed primarily at demographic categories that are legally able to choose whether or not they are in the market for alcoholic beverages is barking up the wrong tree.



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