Do Alcoholic Beverage Ads Drive Youth to Drink?

Alcohol Marketing Industry Says No, Battles Back with Critique Debunking Earlier Study

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The alcoholic-beverage industry maintains its ads don't work, and has brought in advertising professors to prove it.

More accurately, the contention is that the industry's ads don't influence youth to drink, which is contrary to what a study reported by the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests. The study, led by Leslie B. Snyder, associate professor of communication science at the University of Connecticut, is being used as ammunition by critics calling for limits on alcohol ads. It was originally published in January, but at the behest of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (Discus), the August issue of the same journal carries critiques of the original study by two prominent professors.

The study of randomly sampled 15- to 26-year-olds found they drank more after seeing alcohol ads, and that each additional ad viewed increased the number of drinks consumed by 1%. In markets with more alcohol ads, spending on alcohol was up over markets with fewer ads.

The conclusion is dramatic for an industry that has long argued that although people who see alcohol advertising are more likely to be affected by it, there is little evidence it causes people to drink. Instead, it influences what brand or product the people already going to a bar will consume that night.

In the critique some seven months after the original study, Donald Schultz, a Northwestern University professor, and Reginald Smart, a professor emeritus of social science at the University of Toronto, separately said the study was flawed.

Mr. Schultz suggested the study lost so many participants from beginning to end that it bears questioning. He also said asking people four weeks later what alcoholic beverages they consumed in the past month invited speculation, raised questions on the conclusions, and contended that the study turned behavior correlations into causality.

"What I'm saying is the conclusions they drew, I don't think they can draw," he said. "If they can make connections, they've discovered the holy grail, because they are doing something that ad researchers have not been able to do historically."

Mr. Smart, who has extensively researched the impact of ad limits on consumption and found little correlation, said the study had other problems, including trying to draw conclusions about youth from a sample that had 50% of its answers coming from people over 21. "The jury is still out on whether alcohol ads make people drink more. There is some evidence that it is friends, associates and parents," he said.

Ms. Snyder did not return a call.

A Discus spokeswoman said the group asked the professors to review the study because of how often it was being cited. "[The study] had been pointed to as showing a causal link between alcohol ads and underage drinking, despite decades of scientific research to the contrary."
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