Alcohol Advertising Targeted to Youth Causes Abuse

Alcohol Advertising Targeted to Youth Causes Abuse

Table of Contents: Further Readings

“Television: Alcohol’s Vast Ad Land,”, December 18, 2002. Copyright © 2002 by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. Reproduced by permission.

While the alcohol industry claims that it does not target underage drinkers, its voluntary guidelines are so lax that it allows advertising on programs with a majority of young people in the viewing audience, researchers for the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth argue in the following viewpoint. They contend that exposure to an excessive amount of advertising that glamorizes drinking or portrays abusive drinking behavior in a positive way encourages young people to start drinking, often abusively, at an early age. The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University monitors the effect of the marketing practices of the alcohol industry on American youth.

As you read, consider the following questions:

  1. According to the center, what percentage of the national television population is between twelve and twenty?
  2. Name one reason why society should be concerned about alcohol advertising to youth, in the researchers’ opinion.
  3. In 2001 how many alcohol ads were seen by more youth than adults, as cited by the authors?

Concern about how much television alcohol advertising reaches underage youth and how the advertising influences their attitudes and decisions about alcohol use has been widespread for many years. Lacking in the policy debate has been solid, reliable information about the extent of youth exposure to television alcohol advertising. To address this critical gap, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth commissioned Virtual Media Resources, a media planning and research firm in Natick, Massachusetts, to analyze television alcoholadvertising in 2001, using the same data and methodology as professional media planners.

In auditing 208,909 alcohol ad placements on television in 2001, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth finds the following:

  1. The alcohol industry’s voluntary guidelines for ad placements on television are so lax that they allow the substantial exposure of youth to alcoholic beverage advertising, including advertising on programs with disproportionate numbers of young people in the viewing audience.
  2. Even when adults were more likely to see television alcohol advertising than youth, in many instances youth saw almost as much television alcohol advertising as the adults.
  3. Because of the placement of the commercials, almost a quarter of alcohol advertising on television in 2001 was more likely to be seen by youth than adults.

The Standard for Measuring Youth Exposure

Youth are only 15% of the national television viewing population (age 12 and over) and represent only 15.6% of the general U.S. population, age 12 and up. When advertising is placed on programs where the youth viewing audience is more than 15%, young people are more likely to see that advertising than adults. In 1999, the Federal Trade Commission pointed out that a few alcohol companies restricted their television ad placements to programming where the youth audience was 30%, 25%, or less, and called these “best practices.” Noting that “30 percent of the U.S. population is under the age of 21, and only ten percent is age 11 to 17,” the FTC concluded that the alcohol industry’s voluntary guidelines providing for a 50% threshold for underage youth in the audience “permits placement of ads on programs where the underage audience far exceeds its representation in the population.”

The FTC’s recommendations notwithstanding, the voluntary advertising codes of the Beer Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) suggest that alcohol advertisers refrain from airing their commercials on programs where young people are the majority of the viewing audience. Using a base of viewers age 12 and older, only one percent of all network and cable television programs in 2001 (187 out of 14,359) had an underage audience that was more than 50%. Thus the brewers’ and distillers’ voluntary codes leave 99% of the television landscape permissible for alcohol advertising.

Beer and Ale Ads Are Seen Most in TV Alcohol Advertising

Even when alcohol advertising was placed on programming with 15% or less youth in the viewing audience, youth exposure to alcoholadvertising on television in 2001 was substantial and significant. In 2001 youth saw two beer and ale ads for every three seen by an adult. Given the high volume of beer and ale advertising to adults, this ratio translates into a high volume of youth exposure, representing more than 200 commercial exposures for the average youth, and far more exposures for those youth who are frequent viewers of television. Beer and aleadvertising is by far the dominant television alcohol advertising. Of the $811.2 million in television advertising (208,909 ads) analyzed in this study, beer and ale accounted for 86% of the ad spending.

Four beer and ale brands accounted for more than 50% of the total spending of television advertising analyzed: Coors Light, $114 million; Budweiser, $108 million; Miller Lite, $95.8 million; and Bud Light, $88.7 million.

  • Youth saw more than two Coors Light ads for every three seen by an adult.
  • Youth saw more than one Budweiser ad for every two seen by an adult.
  • Youth saw almost three Miller Lite ads for every four seen by an adult.
  • Youth saw more than one Bud Light ad for every two seen by an adult.

Another way to assess the volume of alcohol advertising seen by youth is to compare it to product categories often considered youth-oriented. In this light, youth saw more beer and ale ads on television in 2001 than they saw ads for other product categories such as fruit juices and fruit-flavored drinks; or gum; or skin care products; or cookies and crackers; or chips, nuts, popcorn and pretzels; or sneakers; or non-carbonated soft drinks; or sportswear jeans.

Overall in 2001, alcohol advertising reached 89% of the youth audience, who on average saw 245 alcohol ads. But the 30% of youth who were most likely to see alcohol advertising on TV saw at least 780 ads.

Youth Overexposed to Television Alcohol Advertising

Almost a quarter of the television alcohol advertising in 2001—51,084 ads—was delivered more effectively to youth than to adults. This means the advertising was placed on programs where the youth audience was higher than the percentage of youth in the television viewing population. That percentage is 15% nationally and varies slightly from market to market. By placing advertising on programs where the composition of the youth audience is higher than average, the youth audience is in effect “overexposed” to the advertising and is more likely to have seen it than the adult audience.

The alcohol industry placed these 51,084 ads on television in 2001 at a cost of $119 million. Ten beer and “malternative” (also known as “low alcohol refresher”) brands accounted for $92 million of this spending:

  • Miller Lite, $18.5 million
  • Heineken, $16.2 million
  • Coors Light, $13.6 million
  • Miller Genuine Draft, $10.5 million
  • Budweiser, $8.4 million
  • Bud Light, $7.3 million
  • Corona Extra, $5.6 million
  • Smirnoff Ice, $4.8 million
  • Foster’s, $3.8 million
  • Mike’s Hard Lemonade, $3.5 million

The ads were broadcast on shows ranging from sports programs like Sports Center and the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs, to drama programs like Dark Angel and X-Files, variety programs like MADtv and Saturday Night Live, situation comedies like That ’70s Show and Titus, and talk shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Daily Show.

Five networks—WB, UPN, Comedy Central, BET and VH-1—routinely overexposed youth to alcohol advertising in 2001. Two types of programming—variety shows like MADtv on Fox and Insomniac Music Theater on VH-1, and music, video and entertainment shows likeMidnight Love on BET and Top 10 Countdown on VH-1—also overexposed youth to alcohol advertising in 2001. For instance, youth had 110% greater exposure to alcohol advertising on Comedy Central than did legal-age adults. On variety shows, youth had 26% greater exposure to alcohol advertising than did legal-age adults.

Why Alcohol Advertising Is a Cause for Concern

Underage drinking in the United States is marked by abuse. For 15- to 17-year-olds, 25% report being current drinkers, and 65% of those current drinkers report having had five or more drinks on at least one occasion: By the time they are 18 to 20 years old, 48% report being current drinkers, and 71% of those drinkers report having had five or more drinks on at least one occasion. The vast majority of the alcohol consumed by young people is for the purposes of intoxication: 92% of the alcohol drunk by 12- to 14-year-olds and 96% of the consumption by 15- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 20- year-olds is done when drinkers are having five or more drinks at one time. More than a thousand young drivers died in crashes after drinking in 2001. While the total number of young drivers dying in motor vehicle crashes fell from 1999 to 2001, alcohol-related fatalities in this group are rising.

In 2002, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University surveyed youth about drinking and risky sexual behavior. Among 15- to 17-year-olds, 29% of the respondents said alcohol or drugs had influenced their decision to engage in sexual activity. Almost a quarter of the 15- to 17-year-olds reported that they had done more sexually than planned because of alcohol or drug use. Slightly more than a quarter of this age group reported they were concerned about sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy because of their alcohol or drug use.

The voluntary advertising guidelines of the alcohol industry explicitly recognize the dangers of advertising that glamorizes or portrays abusive drinking behavior or sexual themes. For instance, the Beer Industry’s voluntary code states: “Beer advertising and marketing materials should not depict situations where beer is being consumed excessively, in an irresponsible way, or in any way illegally.” It goes on to state: “Beeradvertising and marketing materials should not portray sexual passion, promiscuity or any other amorous activities as a result of consuming beer.” The DISCUS advertising guidelines contain similar admonitions to its members. For instance, “Distilled spirits advertising and marketing should portray distilled spirits and drinkers in a responsible manner. These materials should not show a distilled spirits product being consumed abusively or irresponsibly.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has noted that “while many factors may influence an underage person’s drinking decisions, including among other things parents, peers and media, there is reason to believe that advertising also plays a role.” Research studies have found that exposure to and liking of alcohol advertisements affects young people’s beliefs about drinking, intentions to drink, and actual drinking behavior. …

Industry Guidelines Are Not Strict Enough

The alcohol industry has adopted guidelines on advertising placement that purport to limit the exposure of youth to alcohol advertising on television while allowing the industry to market its products to legal-age adults.

In fact, the industry guidelines place a very small percentage of television programming off limits for alcohol ads. Using a base of viewers age 12 and older, only one percent of all network and cable television programs in 2001 (187 out of 14,359) have an underage audience that is more than 50%—the beer and distilled spirits industries’ threshold for not advertising. Using a base of viewers age 2 and older, only six percent of all network and cable television programs in 2001 (888 out of 14,359) have an underage audience that is more than 50%.

As it was in 2001, even the 50% threshold was violated. The alcohol industry spent $1.8 million and placed 3,262 ads on programs where the underage audience was more than 50%.

More significantly, more than 51,000 alcohol ads were seen by a greater percentage of youth than adults in 2001. The industry spent $119 million on this advertising, and it represented nearly a quarter of the industry’s television ad placements. Even when the alcohol industry placed ads on television that were seen by more adults than youth, underage youth were seeing a substantial amount of alcohol advertising. For instance, youth saw more beer and ale advertising in 2001 than they saw advertising for gum, or cookies and crackers, or sneakers. Often, youth were seeing two alcohol ads for every three seen by adults, or three alcohol ads for every four seen by adults.

Youth actually make up a smaller percentage of both the television viewing audience and the U.S. population in general than indicated by the alcohol industry guidelines. Youth are only 15% of the Nielsen television population (age 12 and over) and only 15.6% of the general population 12+. Furthermore, their presence in the audience actually viewing television only averages 10% overall.

Even following a 15% threshold would still have resulted in more than 22,000 television ads in 2001 where a greater percentage of youth than adults would have been exposed to the alcohol advertising. And a 15% threshold allows for the viewing of alcohol advertising by millions of underage youth in the case of major sporting events such as the Super Bowl or awards shows such as the Academy Awards. However, following this threshold would have provided more protection of youth than the current marketplace does.

In 1999, the Federal Trade Commission called upon the industry to adopt “best practices” on advertising placements. For television placements, the FTC pointed as a “best practice” to some companies adopting “a 70 to 75 percent legal-age audience for television placements.”

This report shows that it is time for the FTC to review the alcohol industry’s television advertising practices and to determine whether the “best practices” the Commission advocated in 1999 have been adopted and, more importantly, whether those practices indeed provide for adequate protection of the nation’s youth from overexposure to alcohol advertising on television.



  • Alcoholics Anonymous World Service. Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, 2000.
  • American Health Research Institute. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome—The Man-Made Disease for Babies and Children: Index of New Information. Washington, DC: ABBE Publishers Association of Washington, DC, 1999.
  • Anatoly Antoshechkin. Alcohol: Poison or Medicine? Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library, 2002.
  • Charles Bufe. Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 1998.
  • Rosalyn Carson-Dewitt, ed. Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior. New York: MacMillan Library Reference, 2001.
  • Carol Colleran and Debra Erickson Jay. Aging and Addiction: Helping Older Adults Overcome Alcohol or Medication Dependence. Center City, MN: Hazelden Information Education, 2002.
  • Griffiths Edwards. Alcohol: The World’s Favorite Drug. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002.
  • Kathleen Whelen Fitzgerald. Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance. Friday Harbor, WA: Whales Tales Press, 2002.
  • Anne M. Fletcher. Sober for Good. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
  • Gene Ford. The Science of Healthy Drinking. San Francisco: Wine Appreciation Guild, 2003.
  • Judith Goodman. The Female Alcoholic. Temecula, CA: Women and Addiction Counseling and Educational Services, 2000.
  • Raymond V. Haring. Shattering Myths and Mysteries of Alcohol: Insights and Answers to Drinking, Smoking, and Drug Use. Sacramento: Healthspan Communications, 1998.
  • Dwight B. Heath. Drinking Occasions: Comparative Perspectives on Alcohol and Culture. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2000.
  • John Jung. Psychology of Alcohol and Other Drugs: A Research Perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.
  • Katherine Ketchum et al. Under the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism. New York: Bantam Dell, 2000.
  • Jodee Kulp. The Best I Can Be: Living with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. St. Paul, MN: Better Endings, New Beginnings, 2000.
  • Gene Logsdon and Michael Jackson. Good Spirits: A New Look at Ol’ Demon Alcohol. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1999.
  • Eric Newhouse. Alcohol: Cradle to Grave. Center City, MN: Hazelden Information Education, 2001.
  • Thomas Nordegren. The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Parkland, FL: Brown Walker Press, 2002.
  • Heather Ogilvie et al. Alternatives to Abstinence: A New Look at Alcoholism and Choices in Treatment. Long Island City, NY: Hatherleigh Press, 2001.
  • Nancy Olson. With a Lot of Help from Our Friends: The Politics of Alcoholism. New York: Writers Club Press, 2003.
  • Stanton Peele. The Meaning of Addiction: An Unconventional View. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
  • Thomas R. Pegram. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.
  • J. Vincent Peterson et al. A Nation Under the Influence: America’s Addiction to Alcohol. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.
  • Bert Pluymen. The Thinking Person’s Guide to Sobriety. New York: Griffin Trade Paperback, 2000.
  • Susan Powter. Sober … and Staying That Way: The Missing Link in the Cure for Alcoholism. New York: Fireside, 1999.
  • Frederick Rotgers et al. Responsible Drinking: A Moderation Management Approach for Problem Drinkers. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2002.
  • Lori Rotskoff. Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Joseph Santoro et al. Kill the Craving: How to Control the Impulse to Use Drugs and Alcohol. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2001.
  • Marc Alan Schuckit. Educating Yourself About Alcohol and Drugs: A People’s Primer. Cambridge, MA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.
  • Frank A. Sloan and Emily M. Stout, eds. Drinkers, Drivers, and Bartenders: Balancing Private Choices and Public Accountability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • James P. Spradley. You Owe Yourself a Drunk: An Ethnography of Urban Nomads. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1999.
  • Joseph Volpicelli and Maja Szalavitz. Recovery Options: The Complete Guide. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000.
  • Ronald R. Watson and Adam K. Myers, eds. Alcohol and Heart Disease. London: Taylor and Francis, 2002.
  • Henry Wechsler and Bernice Wuethrich. Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2002.
  • Danny M. Wilcox. Alcoholic Thinking. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.


  • Beer Institute. “Advertising Warning Legislation,” Beer Institute Online, April 2003.
  • Brown University Digest of Addiction Theory and Application. “Risk for Developing Alcoholism Linked to Genetic Characteristics,” October 2000.
  • Free Republic. “Study: Kids Exposed to TV Beer Marketing,” December 12, 2002.
  • John Gaffney. “New Alcohol Study Refuted by Industry,” Media Daily News, December 12, 2002.
  • Susan Greenfield. “Alcohol on the Brain: Myths and Mysteries,” Alcohol in Moderation, May 14, 2002.
  • International Center for Alcohol Policies. “Industry Views on Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing, with Special Reference to Young People,” 2002.
  • David H. Jernigan. “The Global Expansion of Alcohol Marketing: Illustrative Case Studies and Recommendations for Action,” Journal of Public Health Policy, 1999.
  • Ilana Mercer. “Addictions Are About Behavior, Not Disease,” Calgary Herald, June 22, 2000.
  • Modern Brewery Age. “Beer Industry Responds to CAMY Underage Drinking Report with New Stats,” December 30, 2002.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Age of Drinking Onset and Unintentional Injury Involvement After Drinking,” January 2001.
  • Vanessa O’Connell and Christopher Lawton. “Anti-Alcohol Group Seeks Limits on TV Ads,” Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2002.
  • Pain and Central Nervous System Week. “Researchers Track Gene Responsible for Alcohol Withdrawal,” June 3, 2002.
  • University of Michigan and National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Monitoring the Future Survey,” December 13, 2002.
  • Paula J. Wart. “Just Like Dear Old Dad: Alcoholism May Be in the Genes,” Wellsource, April 3, 2002.

One thought on “Alcohol Advertising Targeted to Youth Causes Abuse

  1. Pingback: Does Alcohol Advertising Cause Abuse to Youth? | The Effects of Advertising

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *