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Targeting Youth? Alcohol Advertising in Magazines
August 1, 2006
Trevor Butterworth and Rebecca Goldin Ph.D.
The media likes one side of a complicated story; ignores new study challenging widely believed claim that alcohol industry targets teens

Do alcohol manufacturers target advertising at youth? This question has plagued parents, advocacy groups, social researchers and even the government for years. Organizations such as the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) have steadfastly claimed that they do, and that these ads contribute to the problem of underage drinking. In April 2005, after tabulating the number and type of ads found in magazines and other media, CAMY analyzed the data and appeared to come up with a definitive empirically-grounded answer: As the New York Times reported,

 “56 percent of spending on beer and liquor ads that ran from 2001 through 2003 appeared in publications with a disproportionate readership among those ages 12 to 20.”

CAMY’s research was and is widely cited, for example the Boston Globe reported in August 2005  that

“girls are specific targets of marketing… [and] get a heavier exposure to alcohol marketing than girls of legal age, and see 95 percent more alcohol advertising than the typical 35-year old. Much of it is in the magazines girls read, especially, Cosmopolitan, In Style, Vibe, Entertainment Weekly and Vogue.”

Or as the Oregonian reported in November of the same year,

“Alcohol is the No. 1 drug problem among teenagers, says researcher David Jernigan, who runs the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.

‘It is so critical that parents be aware of what our kids are facing and speak up about it,’ he says, "because what the advertising industry says is: It's all the parents' responsibility.’"

But in the July issue of Contemporary Economic Policy, Jon Nelson, professor emeritus of economics at Penn State challenged the conventional wisdom with research that found that alcohol advertisers did not, in fact, target youth. According to Nelson, the most influential factors for where ads are placed in magazines are cost and size of circulation and not the percentage of young readers.

Apart from a United Press International wire story, no media organization reported the study in the United States, despite deep concern about under-age drinking, its causes and remedies. Are the media at fault for ignoring this study? The question can only be answered by comparing CAMY’s approach with Nelson’s.

Targeting – so who’s right?
In part, the answer to whether the alcohol industry targets teens depends on what you mean by “targeting.” According to CAMY, targeting occurs whenever alcohol companies advertise in magazines with a youth readership over 15 percent - "youth" in this case being defined as being between the ages of 12 and 20 (for some reason CAMY doesn't think 11-year olds read popular magazines). The percentage of youth in this age group in the population is about 14 percent, so, CAMY reasons, a magazine that appeals to more youth than the population average is one that alcohol companies would avoid if they weren’t “targeting” youth.

Magazines that fall into this category include Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and others. From a statistical point of view, these magazines “oversample” youth, meaning that they have a disproportionately high youth readership compared to the general population. For CAMY, any advertisement for alcohol in such a magazine is automatically targeting youth.

CAMY’s argument is bolstered by a per capita exposure rate: underage youth see more adds for beer, wine, distilled spirits, and alcopops than those over age 21 (though the amount of additional exposure is decreasing).

But this measurement is controversial: while most of us are worried about very young kids becoming turned on to alcohol, the per capita exposure rates mixes in young adults between the ages of 18 to 20. For the alcohol companies, these underage drinkers are difficult to avoid when “intentionally” targeting people agae 21 and over. And these are not typically the kind of “young” people whose parents are rallying behind cries to limit alcohol advertising.

Implicit in CAMY’s language is that alcohol companies are purposefully looking for youth in order to advertise to them. But CAMY neglects to mention that alcohol companies do not advertise in magazines whose main audience is youth; for example, Seventeen and YM do not accept alcohol ads. Magazines that target youth are generally alcohol-ad free.

Furthermore, the magazines that CAMY refers to are not primarily written for (or sold to) underage youth. In most cases, more than 80 percent of their readership is of legal drinking age. So is “targeting” a fair word for alcohol advertisements in these magazines? Are the alcohol companies really after underage drinkers?

Penn State’s study evaluates whether companies are actually motivated by higher rates of young readers. Nelson identifies several factors that might affect an advertising decision – the size of the readership, the cost of the advertisement, the percentage of youth readers, sales outlets, demographics such as race and income, and magazine topic. The question is which factor actually influences how companies make marketing decisions?

According to Nelson’s research, the proportion of young readers among the readership did not make much difference. The influential factors were the size of the audience (not just how many people bought the magazine, but how many actually read it), and how much an ad costs per 1,000 copies in circulation.

Unlike CAMY’s method which defines targeting to be an adolescent readership over 15 percent, Nelson’s work suggests economic models for how alcohol companies make their marketing decisions, with a testable hypothesis as to whether marketing decisions are influenced by larger proportions of adolescent readers. In none of the models was adolescent readership an influential factor.

This study suggests that we should move away from accusing the advertising industry of plotting to get kids involved with alcohol before they’re 21. However, if we view it not as a matter of evil-alcohol-company intent, but as a moral issue, we can’t just dismiss the fact that kids are indeed exposed to alcohol advertising through magazine ads, and more than adults.

Whether this exposure affects how much those under 21 drink is an entirely different, and much more controversial, question. Some studies find that kids who report drinking more also report seeing more ads; but is it because the advertising causes them to drink – or is it because those already disposed to drinking are more attuned to alcohol advertising? Culture is also a powerful influence: Something legal and popular with adults (for millennia) is going to be perceived in a positive way by teenagers; the desire to appear grown-up and sophisticated, and to enjoy the good life is not something that was created by advertising or alcohol companies, it is imbibed from real life.

At the same time, research data shows that kids are drinking less. According to Monitoring the Future, “The longer-term trend data available for 12th graders show that alcohol usage rates, and binge drinking in particular, are substantially below where they were at the beginning of the 1980s.” After an uptick in the first half of the 1990s, the downward trend has resumed.

But here’s a thought: If we could prove that ads unduly influence behavior of adolescents, why not propose a ban on alcohol advertising entirely (as does the American Medical Association)? Or why not legislate that magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Vogue should only be sold to people over 21? Of course, that might raise some eyebrows, considering pornographic magazines are available to those aged 18.

Either way, we cannot have an informed, rational, and productive conversation about underage drinking if the media only cover one side of the story.  It’s a cliché in this kind of discussion to use the word “sober” in some wry way; but without sober evaluation of the social science data by reporters, how are we ever going to arrive at public policies that will actually work?

Reference materials
For a detailed summary of the research on alcohol advertising and teen alcohol consumption – with pop-up citations – check out STATS “Alcohol and Advertising.”