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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.

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