Does alcohol on T.V. make for more alcohol in the hand?

Dirk Hanson

The title of the Dutch study, published in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism, is unambiguous: “Alcohol Portrayal on Television Affects Actual Drinking Behaviour.”

It is an easy and familiar accusation that has been levied at violent video games, drug use heavy movies, and alcohol advertising. But what is the actual evidence for it? Leave it to a group of Dutch scientists to design a practical experiment to test the proposition when it comes to drinking.  In a noble attempt to get around the self-reporting problem, the authors of the study went directly to the heart of the problem. They built a “bar laboratory” on the campus of Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

To their credit, the scientists who undertook the study did not take half-measures: “The setting is a specially equipped relaxing room at our lab, with a comfortable couch and a big TV screen, like a home cinema.” A leather couch, easy chair, and a table containing an ashtray, nuts and chips, faced the TV screen.  And, within arm’s reach, a refrigerator containing beer, wine, cola, and orange soda. After gaining permission from the university ethics committee, the team installed a hidden camera in a corner of the room.

Monkey see, monkey do – Mirroring others and alcohol drinking

A steady accumulation of evidence from neuroscience demonstrates that we are “wired,” to a degree, for mirroring each other’s behavior.  When we watch someone pick up a glass and take a drink, “the pre-motor representations of that action (the goal and the muscles involved) is activated in our brains as if we are about to perform that action ourselves,” according to the Dutch scientists (read about mirror neurons).

However, little clinical evidence actually exists for the assertion that TV alcohol advertising actually affects drinking behavior. One big problem is that studies of this type typically employ a self-reporting system for monitoring alcohol intake. This is what the Dutch investigators sought to counter with their lab bar and hidden camera. In addition, say the researchers, “influence from exposure to television images is expected to take place over a longer time, through changes in associations, cognitions, and expectancies which hampers the possibility to conduct a thorough experiment.” Thus, testing whether exposure to alcohol in the movies affects immediate alcohol consumption is important. But it isn’t easy.

But let us return to the student volunteers in their cozy wide-screen TV tavern. Obviously, this was not the sort of study where investigators have difficulty gathering a group of volunteers.  80 male students were recruited and divided into 40 pairs.  “This is the first experimental study on alcohol portrayal and actual drinking while watching,” the authors report.

After adjusting for numerous variables, the study concluded:

Viewing a movie in which alcohol is portrayed appears to lead to higher total alcohol consumption of young people while watching the movie. Results were straightforward and substantial: those in the condition with alcohol portrayal in movie and commercials drank on average 1.5 glasses more than those in the condition with no alcohol portrayal, within a period of 1 hour.

To the best of their knowledge, the authors claim that “this is the first study in which portrayal of alcohol on a television screen has been linked to immediate drinking behavior.”

Not a surprising finding, perhaps—but it does suggest that some degree of behavioral change through video repetition, as in TV advertising, can be an immediate, rather than a gradual, process. It suggests that drinking in front of televised advertisements for beer and wine may create a subtle feedback loop that conduces toward additional drinking.

The study is not without its flaws. For example, different subject pairs did not always see the same movie. The authors admit that it would have been better “to use one movie but to do careful editing to leave out all alcohol scenes in one version,” in order to identify differences exclusively due to alcohol portrayals onscreen.

Possible impact on alcohol drinking among teens?

If televised alcohol portrayals have a modest effect on drinking—and millions of advertising dollars are spent by the alcohol industry based on the belief that they do—does it really matter? It does. Despite agreements to the contrary with trade associations representing brewers and distillers, alcohol advertising on TV is definitely on the rise—especially on cable channels.

A report released by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health calculated that alcohol advertising on U.S. television increased 71 % between 2001 and 2009—a significant increase by any standards.  “Youth exposure to distilled spirits advertising grew by nearly 3,000 percent from 2001 to 2009, primarily on cable,” according to the Johns Hopkins report.

David Jernigan, director of the Center, said that the average youth watched 217 alcohol ads in 2001. In 2009, the figure was 363, or roughly one alcohol ad per day. Such results might be “great for vitamins but not for young people being exposed to alcohol advertising,” he said. “Alcohol companies have stepped up their advertising efforts on television—particularly on cable networks—and the result is an alarming hike in youth exposure. Industry standards need to be tightened to protect youth from alcohol marketing.”

An earlier report by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth noted that in 2003, the alcohol industry placed ads on all 15 of the 15 shows most popular with teenagers. Consistently over the years, teens “have ranked ads for Budweiser among their top 10 favorite TV advertisements,” the report stated.

7 responses to “Does alcohol on T.V. make for more alcohol in the hand?”

  1. Dirk

    The design of this study was, in my opinion, deeply flawed to the extent that the authors cannot rule out their results being due to any number of factors.
    First of all, the authors claim that they went to great lengths to create a natural, ecological valid drinking environment. But at the end of the day, this was an experiment! The participants knew it was an experiment and even consented to being video and audio recorded. We all know what participants do when they know they are being watched; they change their behaviour, they try to be ‘good participants’, and particularly when substances are involved, they try to behave in more socially desirable ways.

    The main flaw was that the oxymoronic claim of a naturalistic observation prior to which the researchers created an environment which they believed would encourage participants to drink! In other nonsensical words, they created a naturalistic setting which was heaviliy manipulated! For example, participants came along in pairs of friends. The authors state: “We did (invite couples) so to encourage the participants to feel free to drink alcohol while watching the movie, which would be less likely if participants would be alone”. So they admit that they took this step to make drinking more likely; how is that ‘naturalistic’?

    Furthermore, by inviting pairs of friends along at the same time because this encourages drinking, the researchers are conceding that drinking during the movie is in large part influenced by what the guy sitting next to you is doing, not what is on the TV!
    Then there is the selection of drinks; they offered participants four types of drinks which they assumed were most popular among young Dutch people while watching a movie! Again, this is a manipulation which promotes drinking over non-drinking and which is nothing to do with what is on TV!

    Then we find out that all drinks were free! Do you know what some people do when they are told that the drinks are on the house? Yes, they drink because it is free, even when they don’t really want a drink. This doesn’t mean that they would drink their own alcohol in their house to a similar volume or speed. When they are paying for it, they drink differently! Do you honestly think that is the ‘bar lab’ was charging participants for drinks that they would have drunk nearly as much?
    Then we find out that participants knew that the movie clip lasted only one hour, meaning that they knew when the free drinks were available until and so how fast or slow to drink. Again, watching a movie with a time constraint like this is nothing like watching TV at home. Do you know what happens when people hear “Time gentleman please!”? They get a final order in, not because they necessarily wanted a drink but because they know that drinks are about to become unavailable. So the availability and impending unavailability of free drinks may have increased drinking to a volume not typical to volume drank at home. Again, this had nothing to do with what was on the TV.

    Fifth, being an experiment, the participants had little choice but to sit there, watch the TV, and consume what was around them, which were drinks, nuts and crisps. They weren’t free to change the channel, to change the volume, to turn off at any part, or to pause. Like Bruce Alexander demonstrated in his famous “Rat Park” experiments, because a person chooses to do one thing when he has very few choices about what to do does not then mean he will do that same thing when his range of choices increases. Or more simply, expand the range of choices and you are more likely to find that behaviours change from the ‘fewer choices’ environment. Because a person drinks when all he can do is watch TV, drink or eat crisps does not mean he will do these things when he is watching TV in his own house. We should not be surprised that people drink more and eat more crisps when watching the TV when we put them in a situation in which the only things they could do were watch the TV, drink and eat crisps!

    In short, a naturalistic observation is about re-creating an environment which resembles a typical environment of interest and seeing what happens. Unfortunately for the researchers, these clear manipulations of the context to bias participants to drink, by definition, disqualifies this study as a naturalistic observation. It is an openly admitted controlled observation, and the authors seem to not realise that in admitting that they took all these steps to encourage drinking, steps which had nothing to do with the TV, they cannot then say that “viewing a movie in which alcohol is portrayed appears to lead to higher total alcohol consumption of young people while watching the movie” because they have spent an entire method section detailing the numerous steps they took to manipulate participants’ drinking before we even think about what was on the TV.

    Regarding your commentary on this study, Dirk, you haven’t told the readers that participants watched a 1 hour movie clip interspersed with 3.5mins of alcohol ads! So less than 6% of time was spent watching alcohol advertisements, yet alcohol advertisements are the main focus of your review. I find that puzzling. Movies and ads are very different media. I also don’t think you’ve made enough of the fact that participants were only male, only aged 18-29 and watched the movie with a friend; this drastically limits the generalisability of findings, yet again you seem unconcerned about caution in generalising to other populations.

    Second, I don’t know why you or the authors are talking about mirror neurons and neuroscience. At no point were mirror neurons or any neurobiological phenomena measured, and you should have made this clear to the reader. There is absolutely no evidence which says that people lift up a glass and drink because they see someone else doing it, a point acknowledged by the authors! And as you point out, the researchers went to great lengths to maximise the ecological validity of the drinking setting so as to be confident that any changes in drinking were due to the context of drinking and exposure to drinking on TV. Context was the cause of drinking, not anything in the brain. Brain changes which accompanied the context are the effects of being in the context, not the causes of behaviour. Why would you want to shift the reader’s attention to the role of mirror neurons when this study not only did not measure anything neurobiological, but clearly claims to have shown the importance of drinking context on consumption? Why would you want to focus on the association between context (observing behaviour) and brain changes (pre-motor activity) when you are presented with evidence of a causal effect of context and behaviour? Why invoke the brain in discussion of a social psychological experiment period? I appreciate that as a neuroscientist your instinct is to explain behaviour in terms of the nuts and bolts, but this study could not have been more equivocal in stating that causation came from out-with the participants, not within.

    On a general note, so increased exposure to alcohol advertisements means more drinking? Is that not what adverts are supposed to do? Should we complain when ads for cars, colognes and burgers are as effective? You mention a quote that “this (more exposure) may be good for vitamins…”, but it isn’t. Increased exposure to vitamin ads doesn’t mean more vitamin consumption. Why? Because consumption is not simply a matter of exposure to the product; we are still capable of doing some thinking of our own. So why should we persecute the alcohol advertisers for being good at their jobs, for marketing an attractive product in an attractive way? If some of these people worked for the health boards would we still complain that they are too good at their jobs in getting people to quit drinking and smoking? No, but because we disapprove of drinking and smoking, we disapprove of any person, policy and practice which leads to more of these behaviours.

    So teens voted the Budweiser ads as among their favourites – why is this a surprise, Bud tend to make funny, memorable ads! I quite like the Honda ads, should I be concerned about buying cars against my will? The job of alcohol adverts is to suggest to the viewer that drinking is a better idea than not drinking at that moment. Ads don’t compel viewers to drink just as people who watch the Soaps are compelled to have an affair with the next door neighbour and people who watch Bruce Willis films are compelled to blow up helicopters. I suggest we stop making out alcohol advertising to have some unique, metaphysical power over us – this study has certainly not provided evidence of this, and as the authors point out, no other study has either.

  2. Christopher:

    You have done a splendid job pointing out all the drawbacks and difficulties of attempting to design social/psychological experiments that might shed useful light on the neuropsychopharmacological disorder known as addiction.

    I cannot do better than to repeat Susan Sontag’s famous dictum on the matter: “Psychological theories of illness are a powerful means of placing the blame on the ill. Patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it.”

    The real revolution in our understanding of addiction is taking place in the field of neuroscience. I invite you to come along for the ride.

  3. Dirk

    No response to any of my points here so Ill leave it at that.

    Again, this study said something about the social psychological influences on alcohol consumption; it said nothing about the neurobiology influencing consumption and you really think you should not mislead readers to think that it did.

    I cant see what relevance this Susan Sontag quote has to any of my comments or the study in question, but I feel compelled (not literally of course) to correct you on this.

    Psychological theories of substance use describe how ‘responsible’ a person is for their situation, not how much to ‘blame’ they are. Responsibility and blame are different. ‘Responsibility’ is about what is within and out-with a person’s control; ‘blame’ is a moral appraisal on a person who does something we dont approve of. People are responsible for getting into and out of their substance use problems; they are not to blame for getting into problems or failing to get out of problems. To blame them would be to say “they should be doing this”, which is subjective, not science. Psychologists are concerned with who is responsible for behaviour and who has the lost the capacity to be responsible for behaviour. Blame doesnt come into it.

  4. Do rap stars on TV influence young people to want to be like them? Do advertisements about thin young women influence people to want to be thin? Does mass media sensationalization influence people to live in fear? This isn’t rocket science… Of course alcohol on TV makes people want to drink more…. That’s the point isn’t it? Sell more booze, make more money!

    • I think that the general point you make is a very valid one. The question is then how to regulate advertising that may specifically increase the rates of behavior that may harm the viewers or advertisements that target age groups inappropriate for the product. Overall, you’re obviously right but if the effect of advertising is that immediate it does call into question certain advertisements. Unless you believe that we shouldn’t regulate any business practices.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: