Do commercials teach teenagers to drink

Posted: Dec 27, 2002 12:00 AM
A few years ago, a survey asked parents to imagine a New Year's Eve party "where you suspected alcohol was going to be served" but where "everyone would be required to give their keys to the host" and no one would be allowed to drive home afterward. A quarter of parents with teenage kids said they definitely or probably would let them attend the party. The group that commissioned the survey, a Washington, D.C., nanny outfit called Drug Strategies, was horrified by this laxity. In its view, the only acceptable strategy for protecting teenagers from the hazards of drinking is to insist that they never drink. But if you decide to keep your kids home on New Year's Eve, perhaps you should also keep them away from the TV. Another alcohol-related peril lurks for innocent youths idly flipping channels while waiting for the ball to drop over Times Square: commercials for Foster's Beer and Mike's Hard Lemonade. A recent report from Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) reveals that "one quarter of alcohol advertising on television in 2001 was more likely to be seen by youth than adults." Not only that, but "youth saw more commercials for beer than for juice, gum, chips, sneakers or jeans." CAMY charges manufacturers of alcoholic beverages with recklessly exposing "underage youths" (i.e., 12-to-20-year-olds) to ads that make drinking look fun. It insinuates that the industry does so deliberately. "In calendar year 2001," CAMY reports, "the alcohol industry . . . placed 1,441 ads on 13 of the 15 prime time network programs with the largest teen audiences." Those shows included "Survivor," "Friends," "E.R.," "CSI," "That '70s Show," and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- all of which are popular with adults as well as minors. The shows on the list with narrower appeal are also the ones that attracted the fewest alcohol ads. "Seventh Heaven," for example, had five, while "Gilmore Girls" had six, compared to 429 for "Friends" and 382 for "That '70s Show." CAMY even complains about alcoholic beverage commercials on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," which highlights the basic problem with its analysis: Advertisers cannot reach large numbers of adult viewers, especially the young adults prized by beer and "malternative" producers, without also reaching large numbers of viewers who are not old enough to legally purchase their products. How many TV shows appeal to 21-year-olds but not to 20-year-olds? Combine the impossibility of making such fine distinctions with the fact that 12-to-20-year-olds watch a lot of TV, and it's not surprising that they see a lot of alcohol ads: 245 on average in 2001, according to CAMY. But so what? CAMY claims "research clearly indicates that, in addition to parents and peers, alcohol advertising and marketing have a significant impact on youth decisions to drink." Yet it's obvious from the evidence CAMY offers that the research does not clearly indicate anything of the kind. CAMY cites a couple of studies that found kids who recalled and liked alcohol ads more were more apt to drink or say they would. Such research simply shows that a positive attitude toward drinking goes along with an affection for beer commercials. It does not show that the commercials cause the attitude. The rest of CAMY's evidence is even lamer: Kids are familiar with the Budweiser frogs. In surveys people express the opinion that ads make drinking more appealing. The National Association of Broadcasters once said that "radio and television audiences, particularly kids," like "clever jingles, flashy lights, fast talking, and quick pacing." You have to assume CAMY is making the strongest case it can. It doesn't help that underage drinking has been declining in recent years; it's hard to whip up hysteria about a shrinking problem. Even if the evidence that ads encourage underage drinking were stronger, brewers, vintners, and distillers still would have a First Amendment right to communicate with their customers. In a free society, the appropriate response to speech you don't like is more speech, not the censorship CAMY seems to favor. Parents who worry that their children are getting a one-sided picture of drinking should make sure to explain its perils. And rather than shielding them from TV, they could have them watch something instructive, such as the drunken idiots in Times Square on New Year's Eve.