Study: Ads don’t add to liquor use

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

NBC has taken its share of flak from the media, Congress and the medical profession for announcing it will now accept ads for hard liquors such as scotch, gin, rum and vodka.
Critics of NBC are unappeased by the network’s requirements that liquor advertisers market strictly to adults, include in their ads “social responsibility messages” such as the need for designated drivers, avoid the promotional services of athletes, entertainers or other public figures and show no actual consumption of their products.
In effect, NBC is allowing liquor manufacturers to end a voluntary ban on TV advertising that was made in 1948, before the liquor industry realized what a powerful medium television would become. Television has, of course, long been well stocked with beer and wine commercials, some lines from which have passed into everyday conversation, such as “Whassup?”
Here’s something the critics of NBC’s decision don’t know: the somewhat startling fact that it’s likely ads for spirits on U.S. TV won’t affect people’s alcohol consumption at all.
We base that assumption on our research, published in the September 2001 issue of the International Journal of Advertising.
We examined countries that have no bans on broadcast advertising of alcohol beverages (Australia, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal); countries that ban broadcast advertising of distilled spirits (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States) and countries that prohibit broadcast advertising of all alcoholic beverages apart from light beer (Denmark, Finland, France, Norway and Sweden).
The Scandinavian countries are particularly strict in monitoring use of alcohol. Apart from the most comprehensive advertising bans, they not only have state stores but also state manufacturers and breweries. They also have tough drunken-driving laws. However, alcoholic consumption in the Scandinavian nations is no less than in countries with only partial bans or no bans, after we control for other influences on drinking.
Moreover, countries with complete bans on broadcast advertising of alcohol do not show any reduction in two key indicators of alcohol abuse: alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities and cases of cirrhosis of the liver.
Policy-makers who view TV and radio advertising as a cause of alcohol abuse, especially among teenagers and young adults, should look at other factors that may contribute to binge drinking, drunken driving and other dire consequences of alcohol abuse.
Over the past two decades, a noticeable decline in drinking has occurred in many parts of the developed world, with per capita consumption of pure alcohol dropping in the United States by 21 percent and in Canada by 29 percent between 1981 and 1995. The decrease in alcohol consumption can be attributed, at least in part, to changing real incomes, spells of higher unemployment, demographic changes, healthier lifestyles, aging populations (people drink less as they age) and an advertising-induced substitution effect that causes people to buy more expensive beverages but drink less beer in general.
NBC’s much maligned decision to advertise distilled liquor is hardly likely to reverse these trends.
Jon P. Nelson and Douglas J. Young are professors of economics at Pennsylvania State University and Montana State University, respectively.