Colorado State Study Sheds Light on Adolescents’ Response to Beer Ads

In a comprehensive study of alcohol advertising and youth, a team of Colorado State University researchers has found strong ethnic and gender differences in the way adolescents respond to television beer advertising.

The five-year study revealed that white adolescent males are more receptive to beer ads containing sports-related themes than their female counterparts. Overall, females were more likely to respond negatively to beer ads than males.

The study, funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, also indicated that both male and female adolescents who responded positively to beer ads were more likely to use alcohol or say they planned to drink alcohol as adults. Adolescents who responded negatively to the ads or were more likely to criticize messages contained in those ads also were less likely to use alcohol or have plans to drink alcohol when they reached legal drinking age.

Researchers hope findings from the study, to be delivered in a final report to NIAAA headquarters this week, will help health educators more effectively teach adolescents about the risks of alcohol use and enable them to more skeptically view alcohol advertisements.

The findings could also help policy makers make more informed decisions regarding the use of beer ads with sports- related themes and other types of ads in television sports programs. The brewing industry spends an estimated $1.5 billion a year on television beer advertising. Previous studies have shown that over 1.5 alcohol ads appear per hour during television sports programs; many of those ads incorporate sports- or athletic-related themes.

"Brewers are criticized for putting beer ads in sports programming, especially when there are minors–particularly adolescent males–watching those programs," said Michael Slater, the project’s lead researcher and an associate professor of journalism and technical communication at Colorado State. "Our results support public and official concerns that sports content in beer ads increases the ads’ appeal to underage youth. However, they do not support concerns that sports programming might prime adolescents to be more receptive to beer ads."

Also participating in the study from Colorado State was Donna Rouner and Jim Van Leuven, professors in the department of journalism and technical communication; Frederick Beauvais, research scientist at the university’s Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research; psychology professor Kevin Murphy; and Melanie Domenech-Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate.

The study involved 401 male and female Anglo and Latino adolescents ranging in age from 12 to 18. Each participant viewed two television beer commercials with sports content, two beer ads without sports content and two non-beer advertisements. Half of the ads were seen during excerpts of television sports programs and half were seen during entertainment programs. A total of 72 ads, 24 of each type, were randomly selected from network television programs for use in the study. Twelve entertainment programs and 24 sports programs also were randomly selected. Participants wrote down their comments regarding the ads they saw; their responses were extensively coded and analyzed.

Other findings from the study include:

* About 40 percent of the respondents reported overall that at least one person shown in the four beer ads they saw appeared to be under the age of 21. Slater said this finding is significant because it suggests that beer industry guidelines are not achieving their goal of ensuring that people shown in beer advertisements consistently appear to be 21 or older.

* Sixty percent of junior high participants who indicated they had been drunk at least once identified people in the ads to be under the legal drinking age of 21, compared with 40 percent of junior high students who had not been drunk. Overall, junior high students more often believed that underage people appeared in the beer ads than senior high students.

"The relatively high percentage of junior high school drinkers who perceive the people in beer ads to be underage is troubling," Slater said. "It is in junior high school that many young people make their first decisions about experimenting with alcohol. The fundamental cause for concern is that young people who already use alcohol might use their perception about underage people in the ads to reinforce their behavior."

* Latino responses to the advertisements were very similar overall to that of Anglos. However, the link between positive responses to beer ads and alcohol use or plans to drink alcohol was weaker among Latinos than among Anglos. An additional study suggested that Latinos may enjoy Anglo-oriented beer advertisements, but may find them less relevant as sources of social information.

* Types of critical comments about the beer advertisements varied by gender, a student’s use or non-use of alcohol and, to a lesser extent, by age and ethnicity. For example, females were more likely to say that a beer ad’s content was inappropriate; junior high students who had been drunk at least once were much less likely to make any critical comments about beer ads.

Slater said the research team is currently analyzing the data from this study to see how sexual content in the ads shape responses among both male and female adolescents. In a separate, $665,000 study from the National Institutes of Health, Slater is examining the effectiveness of alcohol use warnings in television commercials. Preliminary findings from that research are expected next year.