Exposure to alcohol advertisements and marketing may correlate with increased binge drinking activity, according to a study published in December by a research team from Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.
The study found that alcohol marketers actively promote adolescents’ identification with and allegiance to particular brands of alcohol.
Lead author Auden McClure and co-author James Sargent collected and analyzed data from 1,734 subjects between 15 and 20 years old. The authors quantified the time each participant was exposed to alcohol marketing from television, internet, branded merchandise and movies, and then authors compared the amount of exposure to the participant’s binge drinking activity.
“Alcohol companies say that they don’t target underage drinkers, but it’s impossible to market to 21-year-olds without spillover to those who are younger,” Sargent said. “We wanted to show that marketers aim to target underage drinkers.”
The research for the published study was cross-sectional, meaning that all the data was gathered at a specific point of time.
Therefore, although the researchers saw a correlation between marketing exposure and the extent of binge drinking, the causal relationship between these factors cannot yet be proven, Sargent said.
The research results also indicate that if a participant self-identifies as a certain type of drinker or associates him or herself with a particular brand, he or she is more likely to engage in binge drinking.
Sargent said he hypothesizes that alcohol brand allegiance leads to binge drinking, but he cannot yet rule out the possibility that binge drinking instead leads to greater brand allegiance. He said that a longitudinal study which is conducted at different periods of time with the same participants must be done in order to substantiate his theory scientifically.
“We’re going to follow up with these particular kids to see which variable came first — which causes the other,” he said.
Sargent said that although he believes alcohol marketing encourages adolescents to seek to drink more alcohol when they arrive on college campuses, he does not believe that Dartmouth’s administration will take any steps to reduce alcohol marketing on campus.
Sargent said his research is significant because it has helped determine the “multiple forces” that produce binge drinking behavior.
Julie Campbell, who identified and analyzed alcohol advertisements for the study, said that she believes limiting alcohol marketing in the media will reduce underage binge drinking.
“The fewer that alcohol companies are clearly present in movies, the fewer adolescents will be able to pinpoint a brand as their favorite,” said Campbell.
Although the trends Campbell observed in her research were unofficial, she said it seemed clear that certain themes, like product quality and taste, targeted adults while others, like partying, were intended to entice younger viewers.
Psychology professor Todd Heatherton said that he hopes the implications of the findings will encourage the College to avoid alcohol-sponsored events and the distribution of alcohol-branded merchandise.
“By late adolescence, we can predict which participants binge drink,” Heatherton said. “This indicates to us some of the factors that might be involved in promoting binge drinking by adolescents.”
The paper was co-authored by U. Oregon research associate Mike Stoolmiller, Geisel pediatrics professor Susanne Tanski and Radboud U. professor Rutger Engels.
The study was published in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.”