Unhappy hour: More underage viewers exposed to more alcohol ads

WASHINGTON – To paraphrase Roseanne Roseannadanna, Gilda Radner’s news-commentator character from the early years of “Saturday Night Live,” it’s always something. Especially when it comes to TV.

Programs may be well-produced but of questionable taste. Program content may be worthy of viewing but a limited budget means that the acting or production values don’t compete well in the 500-channel universe. Then there’s the deadly combination of bad acting, bad production and bad values. And let’s not forget the commercials.

The latest evidence that something is rotten in Denmark – well, really, the United States – is a June 24 report issued by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, housed at Georgetown University in Washington. The number of alcohol ads seen by youths ages 12-20 – people too young to drink alcohol legally – rose 38 percent since the center started tracking the numbers in 2001.

Back in 2001, the typical underage viewer saw 216 alcohol ads a year. In 2007, that number was 301 – nearly one a day on average. Of all the alcohol ads that aired, one in five of them was shown on a program which young people were more likely to be watching than adults of legal drinking age.

Researchers at the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth identified 11 brands as being responsible for 48.5 percent – nearly half – of the exposure of young people to alcohol ads: Miller Lite, Miller Chill, Corona Extra, Coors Light, Guinness, Samuel Adams and Bud Light on the beer side, and Hennessy cognacs, Smirnoff vodkas, Disaronno Originale Amaretto, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade and other “alcopop” beverages from Mike’s on the distilled spirits side.

“Alcohol is the leading drug problem among young people, and underage drinking is responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths per year among persons under age 21,” noted the study. “Young people who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely than those who wait to drink until age 21 to have alcohol problems later in life, including alcohol dependence and involvement in alcohol-related violence and motor vehicle crashes.”

“Distilled spirits advertising experienced the most dramatic increase on cable,” the report said, due in large part to voluntary agreements to keep those ads off broadcast TV during prime time, “but beer advertisers kept pace.”

Young people don’t watch many live sporting events, which are laden with beer ads, according to David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. A big beneficiary of the ad bucks, he added, is the Comedy Central cable channel. “Cable is generally the most problematic area, and on cable, Comedy Central is the biggest problem,” Jernigan said, adding that advertisers don’t target specific shows but “day parts” – specific blocks of hours in the 24-hour cycle during which their ads could appear.

The Wine Institute adopted a standard in 2000 that set a ceiling of underage viewers who would be reached by their advertising at 30 percent. The Beer Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States followed suit in 2003. Jernigan believes they can do better.

“It would be relatively simple and cost-effective for alcohol companies to tighten their self-regulatory standards,” he said. If that ceiling were set at 15 percent, “we estimate that kids’ exposure would drop … and advertisers would save money” with little ill effect to their bottom line. He added that alcohol ads in magazines and on radio studied by the center dropped over the past six years, “but those gains were wiped out by TV.”

The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth was founded seven years ago “to show what could happen in the debate over alcohol advertising if we shifted from content … to placement,” Jernigan said. Organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Mothers Against Drunk Driving will still lead the charge against ads’ content, he added, but “it was not leading to effective reforms. The industry has all sorts of content regulation and it’s almost all unenforceable. … It’s all too vague.”

But the center – a demonstration project by the two foundations that funded it – went out of existence June 30. “The hope is that the federal government will pick up this kind of monitoring,” Jernigan said, citing two bills signed into law in 2003 and 2006, but for which money for federal monitoring was never appropriated. “Without a consistent spotlight,” Jernigan added, “I’m not optimistic that things will get better.”

Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.