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Malibu, Mount Gay, or Molson?

New SPH study first comprehensive look at youth drinking preferences


Almost 15 years ago, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company ended its Joe Camel advertising campaign after research suggested that the cartoon character was fueling an uptick in youth smoking.

Now, a team of researchers from the BU School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will examine the correlation between the drinking habits of young people and marketing campaigns, with a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The study will be the first comprehensive attempt to identify which brands of alcohol young people are consuming and to look at why some brands are more popular than others, says study coinvestigator Michael Siegel, an SPH professor of community health sciences.

“Most of the previous work has looked at things like, are young people drinking beer or wine or liquor—only to that general level,” says Siegel. “So we’ve been really limited in terms of our ability to do a lot of research into youth alcohol preferences and alcohol policy. Being able to drill down to what they’re drinking, and why, will be groundbreaking. It could be a game changer.”

Siegel and David H. Jernigan, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School, will codirect the project, which will involve surveying about 1,000 youths, ages 13 to 20, about the brands they drink, how frequently they drink, and how and where they obtain alcohol. They will be asked about binge drinking, alcohol-related problems such as accidents or fights, and the popularity of novelty items like Jello shots and alcoholic whipped cream.

At the same time, Siegel says, the research team will review brand-specific advertising data from the past several years to explore whether marketing has affected youth drinking patterns.

“The questions we’re going to look at are, what kinds of advertising have these brands done, and is the advertising working?” Siegel says. “We’re expecting to see consumption concentrated among a relatively small number of brands—and if it is, we can look at why young people are choosing those labels. Right now, we don’t know much about what they’re drinking, let alone why.”

“This is a big undertaking,” he says, noting that there are close to 900 different brands of alcohol. “But we’re hoping to inform public policy in a very systematic way.”

Youth drinking remains a significant problem nationally, with the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health finding that 26 percent of youths ages 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the past month and 17 percent reported binge drinking.

In 2009, the national Monitoring the Future survey reported that 37 percent of 8th graders and 72 percent of 12th graders had tried alcohol.

In recent years, a number of medical and advocacy groups have criticized the alcohol industry for ads targeting young people. Among them is the American Academy of Family Physicians, which maintains that alcohol advertisements “overwhelmingly connect consumption of alcohol with attributes particularly important to youth, such as friendship, prestige, sex appeal, and fun.” Several studies have concluded that greater exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to an increase in drinking among underage youth.

While beer companies have dominated spending on major TV networks, studies have shown that distilled liquor marketers have driven a dramatic increase in advertising on cable television in the past decade.

Figuring out the connections between advertising campaigns and youth consumption of specific brands will help groups combating underage drinking to target their efforts, Siegel says.

The new study will expand on the research published in a paper last July in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that found links between marketing expenditure and underage drinkers’ brand preferences, as well as higher rates of binge drinking among adolescents who named a favorite brand.

That study, by Dartmouth Medical School and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg researchers, found the most common favorites among the 16-to-20-year-olds surveyed were Smirnoff (for females) and Budweiser (for males). Overall, Smirnoff was the most popular brand for the adolescent drinkers surveyed, but the study did not distinguish between products within the brand, such as Smirnoff Vodka or Smirnoff Ice.

Jernigan, a coauthor of the earlier study, says that a relatively small number of brands are responsible for the bulk of youth exposure to alcohol ads. In 2003, the trade associations representing beer and distilled spirits companies joined the wine industry in committing to placing ads only where the underage audience is 30 percent or less. Some brands have done better than others at avoiding overexposure to youths, Jernigan says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated for the alcohol industry to restrict advertising in media venues whose audience is more than 10 percent underage.

Siegel has done previous research on advertising targeted to young people. In a study last year, he and other SPH researchers found that Boston’s MBTA was allowing young people to be heavily exposed to alcohol advertising. They found a total of 267 alcohol advertisements on 142 subway cars, an average of about two alcohol ads per car. Based on MBTA ridership statistics, that translates into a total of 1.2 million advertising exposures on a typical weekday, 18,000 of them to youth, the study said.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.


9 Comments on Malibu, Mount Gay, or Molson?

  • Anonymous on 12.06.2011 at 8:49 am

    “Youth drinking remains a significant problem nationally, with the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health finding that 26 percent of youths ages 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the past month and 17 percent reported binge drinking.”

    12-20? What kind of target group is that? I don’t see the life of a 12 year old in middle school being in any way comparable to a student at college. I think these researchers (in general, not SPH in particular) need to grow up and stop just feeding off grant money. Try and run studies that actually matter.

  • Carlitos Corazon on 12.06.2011 at 9:49 am

    Can you say “corporate responsibility”? Or is it “corporate greed”? The national drinking age is 21, yet manufacturers of alcoholic beverages target the underage drinker. They are, in fact, indirectly responsible for virtually all under-21 accidental deaths where alcohol was a contributing factor. All so that they can make even “mo’ money”. Hit them in the pocketbook… quit drinking. The life you save may be your own.

    • Nathan on 12.06.2011 at 1:04 pm

      @ Carlitos

      “Hit them in the pocketbook” is an essentially meaningless concept as applied to a corporation. The costs of fines are merely passed on to shareholders and customers.
      – – –

      A more appropriate deterent to corporate greed causing death is criminal prosecution of CEOs and senior officials under the laws governing Corporate Manslaughter. Germany and Italy conduct frequent investigations into CEO manslaughter and have for many decades – this man be one of the reasons German cars have some of the best safety records on the planet. Italy actually found a CEO guilty of Homocide this year.

      – – –

      It is theoretically possible to prosecute for CRIMAL liability in the USA, but it almost never happens. IMO this is part of the USA cultural double standard where “the rich get away with murder”

  • Student on 12.06.2011 at 11:41 am

    I’m really interested in what they find. I personally have noticed how the MBTA is just covered in alcohol ads, especially at South Station. There were literally massive banners hanging from the train terminal for Stella Artois and Tanguerey. How can the public transportation services allow this? Especially when so many students live in this city…

  • Student on 12.06.2011 at 1:06 pm

    This study will find one thing: that its all about how cheap it is. Broke, underage kids drink Keystone and Rubinov because they are cheap. It has nothing to do with their advertising campaign. What a waste of 2.4 million dollars.

    • Arthur on 12.06.2011 at 3:06 pm

      Seriously. Any 12-15 year old who decides they will try alcohol gives their friends older brother $20 and says “I’ll take whatever I can get.” Or they dip into mom/dads liquor cabinet. Even with advertising, at that age, they’re not comparing their options of what they’ll drink that night as long as it’s inexpensive.

    • Student on 12.08.2011 at 1:05 pm

      This is exactly what they are going to find, I can’t believe that they would actually waste 2.4 million dollars on it. And how will it cost 2.4 million dollars to survey 1,000 students? That is just absurd…I would like to see an itemized report of how that money is being used.

  • Person on 01.20.2012 at 10:22 am

    When I was underage we would drink anything we could get! When we had a choice it was mostly driven by what the older kids recommended.

    I imagine this study is going to ‘rediscover’ what the top advertising companies already know.

    Answering the Student’s comment above, depending on how the sponsor organization is structured you can probably get hold of the accounting books to see where the money goes.

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