The Changing Portrayal of Alcohol Use in Television Advertising
Abstract and Keywords
Beer has long been heavily advertised on television. Sales to youth under age 21 (primarily males) are estimated to represent 16% of alcohol sales. Early initiation of drinking is linked to alcohol disorders throughout life, and irresponsible use increases risks of motor vehicle accidents and a range of other injuries. In the mid-1980s, the national legal drinking age was raised to 21. As a result, adolescents had far greater legal and social barriers to obtaining beer. A content analysis of beer advertising over time indicates that this change was accompanied by a change in advertising themes, with more ads presenting beer as valuable, rare, and sought after — a message absent prior to this time. Alcohol advertising uses narratives that speak directly to adolescents, reinforcing the idea that beer is a precious commodity. More recently, new products such as “alcopops” — sweet alcohol beverages — are being marketed to attract adolescent female users.
In this chapter we examine changes since 1950 in the content of television advertising for beer, the most heavily promoted alcohol product (Bonnie & O’Connell, 2004). Advertising plays an important role in socialization and identity formation in adolescents (La Ferle, Li, & Edwards, 2001; Ritson & Elliott, 1999), and beer advertisements are recognized and enjoyed by youth (Chen, Grube, Bersamin, Waiters, & Keefe, 2005; Collins, Ellickson, McCaffrey, & Hambarsoomians, 2005). Compared to other demographic groups, adolescents are disproportionately exposed to alcohol advertising (Federal Trade Commission, 2003; Ringel, Collins, & Ellickson, 2006). Research into problem drinking among young people has focused on issues of alcohol expectancies, peer socialization, and identity development (Demant & Jarveinen, 2006; Lewis & Goker, 2007). Exposure to advertising predicts favorable alcohol beliefs and expectancies in youth (Austin & Knaus, 2000; Dunn & Yniquez, 1999; Grube & Wallack, 1994; Wallack, Cassady, & Grube, 1990a, 1990b) as well as alcohol consumption (Collins, Ellickson, McCaffrey, & Hambarsoomians, 2007; Snyder, Milici, Slater, Sun, & Strizhakova, 2006; Stacy, Zogg, Unger, & Dent, 2004). Ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise has also been linked to teen drinking (Hurz, Henriksen, Wang, Feighery, & Fortmann, 2007; McClure, Cin, Gibson, & Sargent, 2006) and the initiation of binge drinking (Fisher, Miles, Austin, Camargo, & Colditz, 2007).
The societal costs of adolescent drinking are considerable. Consumption of alcohol by youth under the age of 21 (the legal age for purchase of the product in the United States) accounts for about 16% of alcohol sales and results in an estimated $62 billion in medical expenses and loss of (p. 285 ) productivity in 2005 (Miller, Levy, Spicer, & Taylor, 2006). These costs result primarily from the many side effects of alcohol use, including motor vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, and other unintentional injuries, all of which are leading causes of morbidity and mortality in young people. Furthermore, people who drink at an early age are at increased risk for dependence and abuse of alcohol throughout life (Grant & Dawson, 1997), especially if they consume heavy amounts of alcohol during adolescence (Bonomo, Bowes, Coffey, Carlin, & Patton, 2004; Hill, White, Chung, Hawkins, & Catalano, 2000). Hence, media portrayal of alcohol consumption is of great concern.
There is little doubt that the industry spends heavily on beer advertising. In the most recent year for which data are available,1 the beer industry was reported to have spent over a billion dollars in advertising, the majority of it (nearly $900 million) on television ads. Figure 10.1 shows the trend in overall beer advertising based on data available from 1975 to 2005. The trend in spending clearly peaked in the 1980s only to return to new high levels early in the twenty-first century.
In light of evidence that advertising plays an important role in adolescent use of alcohol, the American Medical Association supports a ban on broadcast alcohol advertising (American Medical Association, 2007); however, the (p. 286 ) Federal Trade Commission (2003) has recommended ongoing self-regulation by the industry. The Beer Institute’s (2006) guidelines for advertisers advise against advertising to youth audiences. What constitutes youth-oriented advertising is very much subject to debate, and while advertisers maintain that their work is targeted to an adult audience, researchers have noted that certain elements of beer advertising appeal strongly to children. Animals (Lieber, 1996; Wallack et al., 1990b), youthful role models (Austin & Meili, 1994), and celebrities (Atkin & Block, 1984) have all been identified as attractive to young viewers. Studies have also found that children and adolescents enjoy alcohol commercials using humor (Aitken, 1989; Aitken, Leathar, & C., 1988) and are attracted to advertising that focuses on an image or lifestyle rather than the characteristics of the product itself (Austin & Hurst, 2005; Kelly & Edwards, 1998; Zwarun & Farrar, 2005). Our historical analysis examines changes in the way beer has been portrayed with particular emphasis on its relevance to adolescents. Despite the intentions of the industry to adhere to its guidelines against appealing to youth, the storylines and narratives that have evolved since 1950 reflect a clear tendency to express the concerns and anxieties that accompany the transition to adulthood in our culture, especially as this transition affects young men.
A Focus on Narrative
Although manifest features of ads lend themselves well to quantitative analysis, adolescents’ liking of beer advertisements has been more closely linked to their appreciation of the story and humor of the ad than to the presence of particular images or individuals (Chen et al., 2005). Accordingly, qualitative studies have assessed television commercials in terms of their themes, stories, or mythologies (Gronbeck, 1983; Stern, 1998). Parker (1998) defined the “mythologies” underlying alcohol advertising as “strong, commonly-held beliefs that are unconscious and resistant to change” (p. 98). An ad resonates because of its “narrative fidelity”—in plain language, it “rings true” with what the audience already knows (Bush & Bush, 1994). From this perspective, advertising “works” by improvising on and reinforcing wider cultural beliefs about the product and the contexts for its use. Advertising resonates with what the audience already knows, but emphasizes and highlights certain beliefs for certain people, in certain circumstances, to depict a plausible, attractive fantasy context for consumption (Messner & de Oca, 2005).
Previous qualitative studies have used a narrative analysis to assess advertising media during narrowly defined time periods. For example, Postman, Nystrom, Strate, and Weingartner (1987), in their study Myths, Men and Beer, analyzed forty beer commercials broadcast during February and March of 1987 with respect to their portrayal of “cultural myths,” or “patterns (p. 287 ) of beliefs, associations, values, and meanings.” The study, funded by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety, focused on the depiction of masculinity in the context of drinking and driving. One primary narrative identified by the researchers was initiation into masculine culture, with beer serving as proof of maturity as well as reward for accomplishment. Work and leisure provide opportunities for male bonding, with a strong emphasis on speed, risk, conquest of nature, and indifference to social pressures as markers of masculinity. These themes were spoofed in ads for “light” beer products; for example, initiation into drinking culture is treated humorously in ads for Bud Light, and the erosion of boundaries between boys and men provide comic narratives for Miller Lite. Postman and colleagues term this latter theme “the boys will be boys approach,” and suggest the narrative plays on the notion that beer dissolves the boundaries between men and boys, either because mastery of the drinking environment proves manhood, or because inebriation frees men from their adult roles and allows them to act childish. Aside from an ad featuring film star Madeline Kahn, women were for the most part either absent or used tangentially as proof of male prowess and desirability.
Other studies have echoed or developed the basic ideas and premises of Myths, Men, and Beer (e.g., Domzal & Kernan, 1992) or explored audience reactions to beer advertising themes in interview-based studies (Parker, 1998). More recently, Messner and Montez de Oca (2005) reinterpreted the advertising themes of the 1970s and 1980s as evidence of anxieties around masculinity brought by incursions of the women’s liberation movement into traditionally male-dominated work and leisure. The authors argue that unlike the ads described by Postman and colleagues, ads in the early twenty-first century “are less about drinking and leisure as a reward for hard work and more about leisure as a lifestyle in and of itself.” (p. 1886). Instead of depicting drinking as a reward for masculine achievement, ads of the early twenty-first century offer drinking as a means for escape from the inevitable failures of life. Masculine anxieties are satirized in attempts to control, punish, or escape the female “hotties” and “bitches” who provoke these anxieties. Release from these pressures and anxieties is found in the “safe haven” of buddies and beer. Each study set out to explore themes and elements of alcohol advertising that resonate with the cultural articulation of masculinity in the context of alcohol use. Postman and colleagues concluded that drinking provides a context for proving and affirming achievement, because drinking enhances the risks and rewards of male performance. Fifteen years later, Messner and Montez de Oca argued that beer commercials enact revenge fantasies against females who stand in the way of masculine success. Aside from some suggestive remarks about the blurring of the boundary between boys and men, neither directly addresses the question of whether appeals to underage audiences (male or female) have increased or changed over time.
(p. 288 ) Beer Advertising and the Changing Legal Drinking Environment
A narrative perspective focuses on the stories television ads tell about the social aspects of drinking. In keeping with the principle of narrative fidelity, commercials should reflect the norms and expectations for alcohol use that resonate with the audience advertisers are trying to reach. One implication of the narrative perspective is that changes in the cultural contexts for drinking over time would be reflected in marketing approaches used by brewers. Historically, what we might consider a “youth” market for alcoholic beverages has undergone several shifts in the past fifty years. In the wake of the 1971 constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18, many states lowered the minimum legal drinking age; therefore, a legitimate market for beer among youth aged 18 to 20 emerged in many parts of the country during the 1970s. However, in the next decade, federal legislation reduced highway funding for any state with a minimum drinking age below age 21; by 1989, every state had complied with the new law, and many stepped up their efforts to curtail underage drinking. To assess the relationship between alcohol advertising and youth audiences, we might ask how advertising narratives reflected or accommodated the legislative and social movements to restrict adolescent alcohol use since the early 1980s. If advertising narratives are intended to resonate with the anxieties, concerns, and lived realities of targeted consumers, we would expect that beer advertising would in some ways reflect the changing regulatory environment of alcohol use. Hence, our analysis focuses on how changes in advertising narratives reflect changes in the conception of a “youth” market for beer. In a review of fifty years’ worth of television beer commercials, we expected changes in the types of individuals pictured in television advertising as well as the appropriate methods and contexts for obtaining, serving, and enjoying beer.
Analysis Materials: 1950s and 1960s
To obtain samples of television advertising dating back to the 1950s, we relied on several particularly rich online sources. From YouTube, the popular video-sharing site,2 we used keyword searches such as “beer commercials” to view 137 advertisements posted by users. These included many of the comedic commercials from the early- and mid-2000s, as well as “classic” commercials gleaned by site users from recorded television programming. At a subscription-only site for advertising professionals,3 we viewed 243 U.S. advertisements including Super Bowl commercials dating back to 1969. The Center on Alcohol Marketing to Youth maintains an online advertising (p. 289 ) gallery,4 at which we viewed sixty-one beer ads. Additional ads were found at television nostalgia sites5 (eighteen ads). Only a few television commercials from the 1960s and early 1970s were found in these searches. Therefore, 175 examples of television commercials from the 1950s and 1960s were drawn from two compilation DVDs: Vintage TV Beer Commercials (2003) and Beer Commercial Mania (2006). Table 10.1 lists ads viewed by decade.
National prohibition officially ended in 1933, but state and local governments reserved the right to control or prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages. In 1946, 19.1% of the American population lived in “dry” areas, a figure that dropped to 12.7% by 1960 (Pennock, 2007). Beer advertising of the 1950s and 1960s embraced a strategy of “normalization” in order to combat lingering moral objections to drinking (Packard, 1957; Pennock, 2007). Beginning in the 1940s, the Brewers’ Federation launched the “Beer Belongs” ad campaign. Print ads celebrated beer as “America’s beverage of moderation,” as white couples, young and old, enjoyed beer in domestic settings. Some brands sustained the “beer belongs” theme in television advertising; ads for Budweiser and Miller High Life (“the champagne of bottled beer”) depicted beer served to white couples at suburban house parties and with meals at restaurants. The market was not yet dominated by a handful of national brands, and a proliferation of regional brewers, including Hamms in Minnesota, Piels in New York, and Stag in Cincinnati, produced commercials for airing on local stations. The technical standards and motifs of beer ads of the 1950s and 1960s varied widely, relying on a mix of animation and live action.
Table 10.1. Ads Viewed by Decade
Number of Ads
Today, the Beer Institute guidelines warn that cartoon characters in advertising campaigns have “special attractiveness” to children. In the 1950s and 1960s, beer ads were filled with cartoon characters: Mr. Magoo, the Hamm’s Bear, Bert and Harry Piel, animated beer mugs for Oertels, and a variety of animated characters for Genessee, Falstaff, Carling, Blatz, and others. At the time, twenty-six states produced alcohol advertising guidelines limiting (p. 290 ) “appeals to children” (Trussell, 1958). However, animation was not as firmly linked to children’s entertainment as it would later become. The Flintstones was created in 1960 as a prime-time “adult cartoon” and was originally sponsored by Winston cigarettes. Animated ads for all sorts of products became a popular trend in 1961 (“TV cartoonists found in demand,” 1960). Perhaps the most pervasive theme of early beer advertising is that beer does, in fact, belong in the home. A 1958 ad for Stag depicts nearsighted Mr. Magoo watching what he thinks is a television (in fact, it is a fish tank). He exclaims, “Another commercial! Time to get myself a Stag Beer!” Similarly, a Blatz ad depicts cartoon animals watching a movie; an intermission title appears, and the camera reveals that a group of adults are watching the scene on television. A voiceover announces, “You have just enough time to go to the kitchen and get Blatz beer for your guests.” Miller High Life is included on the buffet table at a suburban house party, advertising for Budweiser’s “new” plastic ring six-pack holders places the product in a shopping cart, and couples “make friends with Valley Forge” at a backyard barbecue.
In advertising of the period, a common narrative centered on a “gifting” moment. Hosts give beer to guests, bartenders give beer to customers, women give beer to men, men give beer to each other, and, less frequently, husbands give beer to wives. Bottles of beer (with glasses for pouring in, of course) are constantly changing hands in these ads, reinforcing the link between drinking and sociability. Some ads depicted the exchange of beer in mildly comic situations. A Busch Bavarian ad features a man in pajamas sneaking into the kitchen at night to get beer from the fridge; his wife intercepts him and winkingly pours the beer for herself. In a Schmidt’s ad, a man has brought his television outside to watch the game; he speaks into a walkie-talkie and his wife sends him beer in a bucket on a pulley-line. Another features a St. Bernard dog with bottles of Schmidt’s in a bucket around his neck bringing sustenance to a man mowing the lawn. Beer is freely given and never in short supply. “Mabel” of the Carling Black Label ads cheerfully serves her many customers, and several ads of the era made reference to drinking multiple beers at a sitting. The taste of Shaefer “doesn’t fade after one or two. Even after your thirst is gone, your last beer is as rewarding as your first.” Well before the “tastes great/less filling” ads of the early 1970s, Falstaff was touted as “light enough to leave room for more.” The Piels jingle urged, “Have a good meal with it. Drink a good deal of it.” Budweiser ads encouraged the viewer to “stock up.”
An enduring theme established during the 1950s and 1960s was that beer is a reward for accomplishment in leisure time activities. As a Pabst jingle put it, “Well done! Now, have a beer.” In a few ads, drinking marks the transition from paid work to leisure, but most of the “reward” ads focused on recreation or unpaid work. A number of ads broadcast during this period (p. 291 ) depicted beer drinking after (not during) sporting activities requiring a high level of skill and precision, such as golf, archery, or hunting. Red Cap ads of the early 1960s claimed its beer was “as satisfying as a good duck shoot.” Beer was offered as a reward for household chores, but it also accompanied temporary breaks. In a Hudepohl ad, a man becomes frustrated while fixing a table; he takes a break with a beer and the jingle explains, “when you’ve finished the job, or the job’s finished you, you deserve a glass of that golden brew.” An ad from the late 1960s depicts a young woman rewarding her two male friends with Olympia beer after they help move her things to a top-floor apartment; the camera pulls away to reveal that the sofa on which they are seated remains on a landing halfway up. Although beer is a reward, it is also treated as an incentive.
With respect to their ages, the men in beer commercials of the 1950s and early 1960s were generally middle aged. The “Ale Man” of the Ballantine ads was consistently craggy, as were the men depicted drinking beer alone with sandwiches, in front of televisions, with their wives in taverns or restaurants, or after sports. In an ad for Drewry’s, beer is explicitly linked with adult status. Over a scene of two men and two women talking, eating, smoking, and drinking, the narrator states, “These are the people we make Drewry’s beer for. Adults. With a taste that’s about a million miles away from soda pop. … Kind of nice to be an adult, isn’t it?” In the world depicted in beer commercials of the era, children and senior citizens do not exist. Parties, barbecues, and restaurants are populated entirely by obviously adult couples, and beer is enjoyed in the context of food and meals as well as by itself. The late-1960s Olympia ad, however, gestured toward a younger market. The men are described as “friends,” and it is clear that the young woman is moving into her own apartment. Although the characters are younger, the narrative remains consistent with other ads of the period. Effort expended during leisure time activities is followed by relaxation as beer is handed from friend to friend.
The 1970s: Miller Time
In July 1971, the 26th Amendment established national suffrage at age 18. Forty-five states lowered their voting age, and twenty-nine states lowered their minimum legal drinking age as well (Wechsler & Sands, 1980). By 1979, less than a third of the United States population lived in states with a legal drinking age of 21 for all alcoholic beverages; almost half of the U.S. population lived in states where teens legally purchased beer at age 18 (Wechsler & Sands, 1980). Although the early 1970s saw the expansion of a legal adolescent market for beer, the commercials broadcast during that (p. 292 ) decade do not suggest that advertisers focused heavily on youth. While some ads were populated by apparently younger people, and social groups were no longer tightly organized as sets of heterosexual couples, the narratives of the ads did not diverge from earlier decades, nor did ads featuring young people use different narratives from ads featuring seemingly older people.
Men were often the focus of beer ads of the 1960s, but women were also depicted as beer drinkers, albeit with the suggestion that beer was ultimately a man’s drink. For example, the Piels “Honest Beer—Brewed for Men” ads included a woman stating that she, too, liked a beer that was “brewed for men.” On the face of it, the 1970s hypermasculine “Miller Time” commercials (and Anheuser-Busch’s similar “This Bud’s for You” campaign) demonstrate a shift of focus away from leisure and onto the male world of paid work. An archetypal “Miller Time” ad from 1976 features construction workers enduring a long and dangerous day on a skyscraper “with nothing to hold on to but the wind and a cold steel beam.” After work, they bond and socialize in a warmly lit tavern. Blue collar men working together and drinking together represented a variation on the “beer as reward” theme of prior decades. During this period, the Lite Beer from Miller ads gently lampooned the masculine world of work by featuring retired sports heroes spending their time arguing about beer and, in one 1976 ad featuring football star Rosey Grier, learning needlepoint.
Two industry factors may have contributed to the shift toward themes of masculinity and work. First, the Philip Morris Company, producer of Marlboro cigarettes, purchased Miller Beer in 1970. The ban on broadcast cigarette advertising in 1971 resulted in the Marlboro Man’s retirement from television advertising (although cigarette brand exposure continued on TV through sponsored events such as Formula One and Indy Car auto racing; see Chapter 9). However, his image lived on in Western-themed print ads for Miller products and copycat ads for other brands. For example, a Lone Star Beer advertisement aired during the Super Bowl of 1972 looked exactly like a Marlboro commercial: it featured hardworking ranchers rewarded with cold beer after rounding up wild horses. (Schlitz ran a practically identical ad featuring a bison round-up during the 1975 Super Bowl.) Second, disputes between Anheuser-Busch and the Teamsters union caused a highly publicized ninety-day strike in the spring of 1976; Miller’s tributes to the working man might have capitalized on its rival’s problems with organized labor. The Miller ad campaigns of the 1970s established a pattern successfully copied by Anheuser-Busch in the next decade and beyond: advertising for the flagship brand gestured toward traditional values while advertising for the light brand provided irreverent comedy (Dawson, 2001; Van Munching, 1997).
The ads of the 1950s and early 1960s depicted the sociable transfer of beer from one individual to another. Through the 1970s, beer also served as (p. 293 ) an emblem of inclusion of an individual into a larger group. A 1975 Schlitz ad featured off-duty firemen playing competitive games at a sunny outdoor picnic; a narrator explains that firemen fight fires at work, but at play they fight each other. However, the “fight” is clearly in fun and after the contest a keg is tapped and pitchers of beer are passed through the crowd. At one point, the camera focuses on a young woman spectator holding a toddler on her hip. The inclusion of the woman and her child normalizes beer drinking as part of wholesome family fun, and the passing of beer from hand to hand symbolizes group togetherness.
Some ads continued to emphasize individual accomplishment at sports (skiing for Budweiser in 1975, hang-gliding for Genessee in 1979), but ads of the 1970s also focused on competition in team sports. In a Schlitz ad with the “You Know It!” tagline, beer represents reconciliation as well as reward after leisure time competition. A young man makes a touchdown in a casual game of football but continues to run, chased by his friends. They eventually reach a bar and order beer, and the competition is over. In a 1976 Hamm’s ad, Grizzly Adams, a character from a popular 1974 wilderness film, happens across a pickup basketball game played by three young men at a lodge in the woods. He takes the ball and misses the shot, but stays to share a beer. Aside from Adams himself, the characters in these ads appear to be in their late teens or early twenties. The notion that sharing a beer resolves the tensions of competition also characterizes ads of the period featuring older groups. For example, adult men play touch football in a Schlitz ad from 1979 (“Beer Makes it Good”) and reward their balding running back with a friendly rub on the head and a mug of beer.
Not all of the ads from this period depict groups in work and sports. For example, Löwenbräu ads aimed at a more upscale market (“Here’s to good friends, tonight is kinda special”) echoed the 1960s theme of adult couples enjoying leisure time together. Two commercials in the series depict several couples in a vacation setting—one takes place on the ski slopes (1979), the other on a beach (1981). In each, the group realizes that one of their friends is missing. They worry briefly, but are relieved and pleasantly surprised when the friend reappears, offering Löwenbräu. They are happy to have the beer, but they are more relieved to have found their friend; in the 1979 ad, as they sit by the fire enjoying beer, one man confesses, “For a minute there, you really had us worried.” His friend replies sincerely, “I know. Thanks.” The commercial goes out of its way to avoid implying that the beer is the reason the couples are happy to see their friend. Sharing a beer means group membership, but beer is not the price of admission to the group.
During the 1970s, brewing was an increasingly successful and lucrative industry. As the demographic bulge of the baby boom came of age and the mini mum legal drinking age dropped, each year of the 1970s saw an (p. 294 ) increase in per-capita beer consumption (see Figure 10.2). From today’s perspective, we might expect to see advertisers change their advertising techniques in order to appeal to an emerging teen market for beer in the 1970s. However, aside from the fact that animation was no longer used, the characters and themes depicted in television commercials of the 1970s did not represent a distinct departure from the ads of the 1950s and 1960s. Two possible factors explain the relative stasis in beer advertising themes: first, in the 1970s, television broadcasting was dominated by the “big three” television networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Advertising appealed to a general audience of all ages, for whom youth culture was recognizable but not necessarily relevant. Until the proliferation of cable stations and the increased sensitivity of ratings measures, a narrow focus on certain demographic groups did not typify advertising (Turow, 1997). A second explanation for the lack of distinctly youth-oriented narratives in advertising of the 1970s is the fact that the industry was doing well, with production and sales increasing yearly. Although this statement is certainly debatable, we would suggest that heavy advertising was not a priority: beer was a product that sold itself. In the next decade, the regulatory environment for alcoholic beverages tightened signi ficantly, and the brewing industry’s boom years came to an end (Figure 10.2).
The 1980s: Beer as Achievement
The 1980s witnessed a series of transitions in the advertising and marketing of alcoholic beverages. The decade began with beer consumption at an all-time high (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2007), but by 1987 beer sales had fallen 7%, wine sales fell 14%, and sales of distilled spirits dropped 23%. One advertising executive blamed the new temperance on “tougher laws, public advertising campaigns, and peer pressure” (Pennock, 2007, p. 194). The legitimate teen market for beer evaporated. By 1984, the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) had risen to national prominence and helped push through a federal law mandating a uniform minimum drinking age of 21 for all states. Finally, the baby boom was beginning to age out of the primary drinking demographic. The era was marked by consolidation of the market, with a few powerful brewers (Anheuser-Busch and Miller) buying up smaller regional brewers and competing directly with one another for a shrinking national market. Beer consumption fell between 1981 and 1989, but alcohol advertising increased by more than 40% (Egan, 1990). Rather than viewing drinking as an outcome of advertising, we would reverse the causal arrow and note that weak sales prompted more vigorous attempts by brewers to increase and secure their brands’ share of a dwindling market. In tracking advertising strategies of the (p. 295 ) 1980s, what can we learn about the new cultural contexts for drinking in television beer advertising?
Advertising during the first half of the decade looked much like advertising of the 1970s. Miller continued to run “Miller Time” and “Tastes Great / Less Filling” ads featuring blue collar workers and retired sports celebrities, while Anheuser-Busch ran “This Bud’s for You” and tried various approaches for Bud Light. Blatz and Schlitz both mimicked the “Pepsi Challenge” approach during the 1981 Super Bowl, asking blind taste testers to choose a product over its rival (industry advertising standards prohibited the literal depiction of drinking, so the subjects tasted the product off screen). Ads played on tensions between upscale striving (Heineken’s 1981 “Someday soon you may have the best of everything”) and the back-to-basics lifestyle (Genessee’s 1982 ads emphasized nature and a simple approach to work and leisure). Screen star Mark Harmon appeared in product-centered ads for Coors, explaining the unique qualities of the Coors brewing process. However, over the second half of the decade, the messages changed. In 1989 the Surgeon General accused alcohol advertisers of deliberately targeting underage drinkers and supported congressional attempts to ban beer (p. 296 ) advertising (Hilts, 1991; Koop, 1989; Van Munching, 1997). On one hand, the changes reflected a more general shift in advertising techniques from a focus on product characteristics to the depiction of user lifestyles. However, beer advertising of the late 1980s also employed narratives about alcohol use and alcohol users that departed from earlier approaches and came to dominate beer advertising through the 1990s and into the present day.
During the 1960s and 1970s, beer marked the boundary between work and leisure. During the mid-1980s, as part of their “This Bud’s for You” campaign, Budweiser ads began to address the boundary between inexperience and adulthood. Postman et al. (1987) analyzed an ad in which a young construction worker struggles to prove himself on the job; at the end of the day he is validated as a peer of the more experienced workers when the foreman gives him a beer. Several other Budweiser ads employed this narrative during the mid-1980s: in one, a young man takes over his father’s silk-screening business; the customers are skeptical but the young man does well, and his success is affirmed when his father gives him a beer. In another, a young saxophone player goes from audition to audition. He finally lands a gig at a nightclub, and the bar owner rewards him with a mug of beer. These ads resonate with the “job-well-done” theme of the “Miller Time” approach but with the additional narrative element of beer symbolizing the initiation of a novice into the adult world of work.
In the 1970s, beer functioned as a reward, but it also served to reaffirm friendship by resolving the tensions of friendly competition. Over the course of the 1980s, we see a subtle change in the framing of beer as a reward. In a 1981 ad, men play touch football, having established that the winners get Michelob Light. Over a montage of energetic play, a narrator asks, “Would a bunch of guys go at it this hard just for a beer? Well, consider it’s Michelob Light.” In the end, one man remarks, “You never played like that before,” and the other replies, “We never played for a Michelob Light before.” The ad depicts all the elements of earlier beer-as-reward scenarios, but with a key difference: the ad implies (albeit unrealistically) that the losers will not get Michelob Light. In contrast to the ads of the 1950s and 1960s, in which beer is bountiful and freely given, beer in this ad from the 1980s is explicitly framed as something that must be earned. An emphasis on winning in individual sports also informs Stroh’s ads from 1983 and 1984; in one, “Steady Eddie” Barnes becomes “the best darts player in the county”; in another, Eddie Hatcher wins at poker with four queens. Each ends with the jingle, “Looks like a Stroh Light night!” Unlike the Michelob campaign, the Stroh’s ads do not suggest that beer is the reason for competition; however, the ads emphasize the link between success and beer while downplaying the prior decade’s emphasis on reconciliation.
(p. 297 ) This shift in the presentation of beer as a reward is significant in light of another development in beer commercial narratives. During the latter half of the 1980s, satirical ads began suggesting that obtaining beer was not just a reward, it was an accomplishment in itself. In 1985, Anheuser-Busch launched the “Gimme a Light” series. Bar patrons requested “a Light,” were handed something flammable, then specified “Bud Light” in order to get a beer. Postman et al. (1987) characterized Bud Light’s general approach as “upscale initiation,” and noted the emphasis on bar etiquette—one must know how to order properly. A 1987 Super Bowl spot for Bud Light, “Thomas Edison,” continues the “Gimme a Light” narrative while echoing the initiation theme of “This Bud’s for You.” Edison presents his new invention, the electric lamp, to an older man and seeks his approval. The older man sighs, “That’s very nice, Thomas, but I wanted a Bud Light.” Thomas had apparently misinterpreted the old man’s request for “a Light,” as in earlier “Gimme a Light” ads, but the ad also parodies the themes of accomplishment, reward, and initiation of the “This Bud’s for You” series. In short, the premier American inventor is told that beer is more desirable than the electric light. Behind the humorous exaggeration of Thomas’s failure is an exaggeration of the importance of beer. For adolescent drinkers in the late 1980s, providing beer had become an achievement that peers would appreciate. This theme would inform several ad campaigns over the next two decades.
Another idea that would prove highly fertile to advertisers in the 1990s found its roots in ads of the 1980s. A 1986 Super Bowl ad starred sportscasters and former athletes Bob Uecker and Tommy Heinsohn as “famous comet watchers.” Bob, sitting on a hillside at night, is joined by Tommy, who remarks, “You’ve been up here three weeks waiting for Haley’s comet!” Bob says he’s already celebrating with Miller Lite, because he doesn’t want to get “filled up” and miss it. Tommy requests a beer, but when Bob leans down to get it out of the cooler, the comet suddenly flashes by. Tommy makes a hasty exit, and Bob continues to eagerly watch the skies. The ad fits neatly into the Lite beer advertising tradition, with retired athletes poking fun at themselves. However, it adds a twist: Bob misses the comet because he is engaged in the act of getting beer. One interpretation suggests a negative view of beer consumption: reaching for beer causes you to miss out. However, in the 1990s, this notion would evolve into the idea that obtaining beer requires certain sacrifices. Bob and Tommy are clearly adult characters; however, we would argue that the narrative of the ad resonates with the new social constraints on underage drinking. Getting beer had become riskier and more difficult. The point was made mildly in “Comet Watchers” but became more pronounced as the next decade came to a close.
(p. 298 ) Beer, Animals, and the MTV Lifestyle
In early 1987, Anheuser-Busch introduced Spuds MacKenzie, a beer-loving, high-living bull terrier, to promote Bud Light. Spuds was credited with increasing Bud Light sales by 20% (“Media business: Ads in which animals speak better than humans,” 1989). Critics have catalogued the youth-oriented facets of the campaign, particularly product tie-ins including toys, T-shirts, and posters. Spuds’s extravagant lifestyle, his bevy of young female groupies, and his music-video milieu all suggested a deliberate bid for the attention of the young. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop argued that the ads “tell youth that alcohol consumption leads to athletic, social, and sexual success” (Koop, 1989), and Senator Strom Thurmond displayed a Spuds doll on the Senate floor to garner support for a bill banning alcohol advertising (Hilts, 1991; Van Munching, 1997). Spuds eventually retired, but the use of animal mascots for beer advertising, as well as many other products, continued in the following decades. From a narrative perspective, we focus not only on the presence of the animals, but on the role they play within the story of the ad. Just as adult characters can populate narratives that resonate with adolescent experience, beginning in the late 1980s animal characters increasingly articulated the plight of the underage drinker. A new advertising theme emerged: the notion that an animal, a creature whose access to alcohol is blocked by a number of significant barriers, would be motivated to obtain beer. This shift is illustrated in a 1988 ad for Stroh’s Light. “Alex,” a golden retriever owned by a regular guy living in a suburban house, buries beer (plus an entire beer truck) in the neighbor’s yard. It is possible that Alex, as man’s best friend, is hoarding the beer for his master; nevertheless, Alex’s ability to recognize the importance of the product is the point of the ad. Over the course of the 1990s, beer advertising made liberal use of the comic fiction of animals getting beer.
1990s: Risk, Achievement, and Parody
In the 1990s, satirical treatments of earlier beer advertising themes became a common advertising trope. Mid-1980s ads for Old Milwaukee depicted groups of middle-aged male friends on wilderness trips together. Each ad ended with friends sharing a beer after a day of strenuous activity and concluding, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” A 1991 Old Milwaukee commercial begins in the traditional manner: a group of male friends are fly fishing. One announces, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Suddenly, the Swedish Bikini Team arrives, and the ensuing party demonstrates that it does, indeed, get better, if you’re surrounded by hot blondes and beer. The ad plays (p. 299 ) on the viewer’s memories of the earlier ads while employing two common themes of the 1990s. First, beer not only enhances leisure, it prompts a fantasy transformation of the environment itself. Second, sexually stereotyped young women are an essential part of that new environment. Coors Extra ran a similar ad during the 1990 Super Bowl. A man celebrates his birthday in a bar with male friends; before blowing out the candles he announces “Special birthday tips from Extra Gold.” The first is to have plenty of Coors on hand. As for the second tip: “When you make a wish, make it a wish!” He blows out the candles and four bikini-clad women magically appear, cooing “Happy Birthday, Tom!” The ad ends as Tom flees the advances of one of his male friends, also stripped to his briefs as a result of the “wish.” In the Old Milwaukee ad and, more blatantly, in the Coors ad, the narrative of male bonding is invoked only to be satirically overridden by the notion that the real goal of socializing is fantasy-fueled partying. In keeping with this approach, a Budweiser campaign of the mid-1990s spoofed the father–son bonding of the “initiation” ads of the 1980s; a schlub in his thirties “bonds” with various older men (including, in 1996, Charlton Heston). The older men see through his sentimental act and shrewdly reply, “You’re not getting my Bud Light.” Echoing the new emphasis on the rarity of beer, the series suggested that instead of viewing drinking as a means for facilitating friendship among men, male bonding is just a pretext for obtaining beer.
A satirical notion that beer is more important than other basic needs played itself out in a variety of contexts through the late 1990s. The point subtly made in the 1986 comet watchers ad is brought more clearly into focus in the 1990s: obtaining beer is difficult, but is worth the sacrifices one might make to get it. A 1998 Coors ad features two young men driving in a hot dusty desert. At the gas station they face a dilemma; they have only a few dollars and must choose between gas and beer. The ad ends with the two pushing their jeep through the desert, carrying a six-pack of Coors. In 1999 ads, young men at the grocer’s checkout choose Bud Light over toilet paper, a coach trades his star player for a case of Michelob Light, and an elderly man chooses Miller Lite over romance with an elderly woman. A certain amount of physical risk may be necessary to obtain beer. In a 1997 ad, the McKenzie Brothers, a pair of Canadian comics, leap from a plane in pursuit of a falling bottle of Molson Ice. In another 1997 ad, a caveman is struck by falling Budweiser beer bottles; excited by his discovery, he continues to eagerly watch the sky and is knocked unconscious by a falling keg.
Getting beer may also require ingenuity: For example, a young man trains a mouse to scare a pretty girl (and her six-pack of Bud Light) into the safety of his apartment in 1999. Once obtained, beer is protected and cherished. In a 1998 Heineken ad, a man patiently waits for the very last drop of beer to fall from bottle to glass as romantic lyrics profess, “My devotion (p. 300 ) is deep as the ocean.” Another Heineken ad, “Mood Swing,” turns a sports fan’s elation at a touchdown to abject sorrow when he accidentally spills his beer. Because of its value, beer must be protected: in a 1998 ad, a young man installs a false front in his fridge in order to hide Bud Light from his roommate. A 1999 Rolling Rock ad features a man explaining why he will not share his beer. Finally, because beer is so precious, other people’s desire for beer can be used to one’s advantage. A salesman sells a client a fake photocopier because it seems to turn one beer into many (an assistant is revealed pushing Bud Light through the slot). A lobster escapes a pot by holding a bottle of beer hostage against attacks by kitchen staff (“He’s got a Budweiser!”). A scrappy dog wins Best in Show when the judge sees a twelve-pack in his kennel.
In the 1990s, humans were not the only creatures willing to go to great lengths to obtain beer. In ads for a number of Anheuser-Busch products, animals conspire to steal it from humans. In a 1995 ad, a couple drives through a safari game preserve. Chimps jump on the vehicle; the people are distracted by their antics while a second team of chimps steals Bud Light from the back of the jeep. In 1996, a series of horror movie spoofs featured penguins attempting to frighten people away from their Bud Ice. In another 1996 ad, vultures snatch the last Bud Light from a man lost in the desert. The man mumbles, “They’ll never get it open,” but the final shot reveals the bird’s beak holding the bottle cap. Humans take risks and make sacrifices to get beer, and so do animals. In 1997, a chicken “crosses the road” to get to a bar, and an absurdist ad set in a power plant reveals that the entire city’s power is generated from a hamster running on an exercise wheel, lured by the sight of a bottle of Budweiser. Miller employed beer-seeking animals in two ads from the 1998 “Dick” series. One features an “Evil Beaver” terrorizing settlers and stealing their beer. The other depicts a steer informing a rancher of an upcoming stampede in exchange for payment in cases of Miller Lite. Aliens from outer space also enjoy beer: In a 1997 ad, a spaceship beams up an entire Budweiser delivery truck. Several years later, aliens would use bottles of beer as “bait” for catching humans.
Computer-generated animation enhanced the visual sophistication of animal-themed commercials during the 1990s and the Budweiser Frogs series, which was launched in 1995, exemplified technical as well as social changes in beer advertising. Like Spuds MacKenzie, the frogs were criticized for their appeal to children (Collins et al., 2005; Hays, 1999). Viewed in its entirety, the series of ads illustrates more than an instance of advertisers using animals to catch children’s attention. The first ad featured three frogs in a nighttime swamp, randomly croaking syllables until all three come together to say “Budweiser.” As an amusing vignette, it functioned more like a sponsored piece of entertainment than an attempt to sell product. In 1996, (p. 301 ) a new Super Bowl ad features the frogs in winter. The frogs have trouble croaking out “Budweiser” because their tongues are frozen to a can of beer. Presumably, like the animals described above, the frogs were attracted to beer and tried to obtain it. The next year, Anheuser-Busch introduced two lizard characters (Louie and Frank) and ran ads serializing the story of one lizard’s failed attempts to usurp the frogs’ role as Budweiser mascot. The popularity of the series, and Anheuser-Busch’s own enthusiasm for it, helps explain an ad campaign of the next decade featuring various animals aspiring to be part of the Clydesdale wagon team. For example, a 2006 Super Bowl ad depicted a young Clydesdale colt attempting to pull the Budweiser wagon and succeeding with the help of the older horses. The ads promote the brand, but the product itself is rarely if ever shown. In a study of reception of television advertising by children aged 9 to 15, Waiters, Treno, and Grube (2001) found that younger children disliked beer ads that focused on the product itself. In arguing that they do not “sell” to children, brewers tell the truth, albeit disingenuously. These ads do not urge the viewer to get a beer right now; rather, they invest in brand loyalty, with the expectation that children, like the young colt, will aspire to someday identify themselves with the prestige of the Budweiser label.
2000s: Kill Your Good Friends
In a review of the 2007 Super Bowl ads, a New York Times columnist joked that “here’s to good friends” had morphed into “kill your good friends” in the new black comedy of beer advertising (Salkin, 2007). In fact, the 2007 ads embodied an advertising trend begun in ads of the 1950s and accelerated and intensified through the late 1990s to the present. We see its basis in early television ads representing beer as a reward for accomplishment and a catalyst for friendship. However, the tone and implications of beer advertising changed in two distinct ways. First, advertising reflected a growing sense that beer was not a given, natural part of everyday life. Stiffened constraints on legal purchase made beer rare and difficult to get for the underage drinking population. When the men in the 1979 “Schlitz makes it great” ads enjoy a beer after touch football, they are reaffirming friendship after tough competition. On the other hand, when the men in 1980s Michelob commercials compete for a beer, the ad implies that the men “go at it this hard” because the beer itself is valuable. Getting the beer, not preserving the friendship, is the primary goal in these ads. Second, as the “I love you, man” series illustrates, a view of beer as a precious, hard-to-get substance lends itself to a variety of satirical narratives in which individuals will sacrifice any number of goods, including their dignity, to get it.
(p. 302 ) In the years following the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001, Anheuser-Busch had come to dominate Super Bowl advertising and sponsorship, and Bud Light ads broadcast during the game most clearly exemplified the “beer as precious” approach with advertising depicting human, animal, and alien creatures overcoming barriers to getting or keeping beer. However, during the same period, ads for the flagship Budweiser brand became increasingly serious, patriotic, and elegiac. During the 2002 Super Bowl, roughly four months after 9/11, the Clydesdales took a sober journey through the snow to kneel before the ruins of the Twin Towers, and an ad playing tribute to the “Five Generations” of the Busch family pledged to sustain their tradition of quality. In 2005, a sentimental “Tribute to the Troops” depicted the arrival home of weary soldiers whose walk through the airport generates grateful applause. A small number of ads on the topics of underage drinking, moderation, and drunk driving also appeared (Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, 2007a). The branding approach typified by the “frogs,” “horse football,” and “Clydesdales” series also continued to characterize the Anheuser-Busch approach. Nevertheless, the dominant theme in advertising has been the “beer is precious” narrative featured during the first half of this decade.
A 2004 Heineken ad demonstrates the importance of having lots of beer on hand; a young man asks for salsa and his roommate tells him it’s “behind the Heineken.” We see the entire fridge and every cabinet loaded with the product. The humor comes from exaggeration; however, the image suggests that beer is not just being stocked; it is being hoarded at the expense of food. The hoarding theme is expanded in a number of satirical ads in which young men guard against theft of their beer. In a 2004 ad, a young woman asks her date whether he feels comfortable leaving Rusty at home alone. A shot of the apartment reveals that Rusty is a young man wearing an electric shock collar to dissuade him from stealing his roommate’s Bud Light from the fridge. Regardless, his desire for Bud Light overrides the pain of being shocked. A 2005 ad depicts an office worker installing a beer cam so he can keep an eye on his refrigerator during work; his roommates rig the cam and throw a party anyway. Beer might also be guarded by animals. An ad from 2000 features a young woman whose “cat” gets jealous when other people drink her Bud Light; her beer-filching date discovers, to his dismay, that the cat is actually a tiger. In 2005 a young man a trains a Brazilian fighting cockatoo to protect his Bud Light; in 2007 another uses Walter the attack squirrel. Outside of theft, beer is at risk of loss in other ways. In a 2006 ad, a young man installs rubber floors to protect falling bottles from breaking. Hiding beer, as with the false front refrigerator ad from the 1990s, is also an option. The tactic backfires in a 2006 ad in which young men install a fridge that rolls into the wall to hide itself and the beer. Ironically, (p. 303 ) the fridge appears in the next apartment, where other young men hail the “magic fridge” and raid it.
Another set of ads from the first half of this decade features individuals making extra efforts and sacrifices to get access to beer. In a 2005 Heineken ad, superheroes mock a regular-guy aspirant. He then demonstrates his “special power,” and his ability to transform everyday objects into bottles of beer wins him instant acceptance in the group. People will go to particular lengths to get Bud Light: in one ad, men use tools to cut a hole through their own apartment wall to gain access to the Bud Light in a neighbor’s refrigerator. In another, a man thrusts his hand holding a six-pack into a closing elevator door to hold it; the people in the elevator keep him trapped and mercilessly take his beer. A worker hides bottles of beer around the workplace to “raise morale”; employees ransack and destroy their offices to find it. Men climb on top of their houses, on the pretense of fixing the roof, in order to drink beer. In a 2006 Miller ad, a man rigs his television with an extremely long extension cord so that he can walk all the way to the store for more beer without missing any of the game. Animals can also help procure beer. In a 2002 Bud Light ad, a falcon swoops down from his master’s high-rise apartment to snatch beers from tables in sidewalk cafes. In 2004 a scruffy dog bites his owner’s rival, forcing him to give up his beer.
The sacrifices made for the sake of beer characterize a number of advertising narratives. A person might sacrifice safety to get access to beer. A 2007 ad depicts a young man stopping his car to pick up a hitchhiker. “But he has an axe!” protests his horrified girlfriend. “But he has Bud Light!” argues the young man. Beer lovers will sacrifice their dignity; dressed in ridiculous disco outfits, two young men attend “70s Night” because of the free beer; on arrival they learn that it’s actually a night for people in their seventies, but they stay anyway, because of the beer. In a 2006 ad, a young man kneeling to retrieve his fallen beer from under the sofa is mounted by his dog just as his mother-in-law walks into the room. In 2004, Cedric the Entertainer accidentally strays into the bikini wax room when he is distracted by a fridge full of Bud Light at a spa. Finally, in the quest for beer, one might also sacrifice friends: In a 2007 ad for Bud Light, two young men agree to compete for the last beer using the childhood game “rock, paper, scissors;” one throws a real rock at his rival’s head and steps over the fallen body to take the last beer.
Within the “beer is precious” narrative, jokes about the relative importance of beer and women are common. A 2006 Coors ad introducing the new cooler box depicts young men at a wedding who bring their own beer; they need ice, so they chop the head off an ice sculpture of the bride. A 2004 Sam Adams ad depicts a young man at a house party invited into a bedroom by a pretty young woman; partygoers raise eyebrows at the excited (p. 304 ) whooping that ensues, but the real source of the young man’s ecstasy is a Sam Adams Light. In a 2006 Bud Light ad, a young man brings a date on a romantic sleigh ride at night; he leans down to get beer from the cooler and the horse’s attack of gas turns a candle into a blowtorch and scorches the woman. In contrast to the narrative of the comet watchers, in which retrieving a beer caused hardship, getting the beer saves the young man from a fiery fart. In another Bud Light ad, a man is not interested in his female partner in her black teddy, but when she offers him a Bud Light, he lunges into the bedroom and slips on the satin sheets. He loses his dignity and compromises his safety but at least he gets the beer. According to Messner and de Oca (2005), these ads play on the notion that women may bring disappointment, but beer always satisfies.
From these descriptions, it would seem that ads following the “beer is precious” narrative would violate the Beer Institute’s code of advertising standards, with its admonitions against portraying illegal and risky activities. However, the code allows “strategic ambiguity” (Zwarun & Farrar, 2005), creating opportunities for suggestion rather than assertion. Item 2(d) in the Beer Institute’s list of guidelines states, “Beer advertising and marketing materials should not portray or imply illegal activity of any kind by an individual prior to, during, or after the individual consumes, purchases, or is served beer, unless the portrayal or implication of illegal activity is a basic element or feature of a parody or spoof and is readily identifiable as such” (2006, p. 2, emphasis added). Depicting hoarding also violates the code, but the presence of parody redeems it. Comedy and the use of animals as protagonists allow advertisers to push the envelope on the question of what constitutes the portrayal or implication of risky or illegal activity. Everyone knows that vultures and monkeys don’t really drink beer, and that young men’s efforts to “protect” their beer in TV commercials are ridiculously over the top. Our point is not necessarily that the beer industry is promoting theft. Rather, we would argue that all of the ads discussed in this section resonate with the notion that beer is a valuable and limited substance, and that one must be willing to take risks and, sometimes, break the law to get it. Getting (or keeping) the beer is the dominant plotline of these ads, just as overcoming legal barriers to beer is a typical challenge for teenage drinkers.
Conclusion: Overcoming Barriers to Beer
Looking back fifty years, the most noteworthy change in the content of alcohol advertising is the depiction of beer as a precious, valuable, and rare substance for which one should be willing to commit any number of outrageous (p. 305 ) acts. Although this theme appears in comic or farcical contexts, the fact that it is almost completely absent from advertising prior to 1985 links the trend with attempts to curb teen risk behaviors over the course of the 1980s. The movement to limit the social costs of alcohol abuse began with organized anti–drunk driving campaigns of the late 1970s and culminated with the 1984 federal highway funding legislation. Coupled with increased enforcement of minimum purchase age laws through sting operations and the institution of civil liability suits (dram shop laws), these efforts were successful in creating a substantial set of barriers to underage drinking. Setting aside the question of whether these events measurably affected the societal costs of adolescent and problem drinking, the fact remains that, generally speaking, in the mid-1970s adolescents experienced far fewer legal and social barriers to obtaining beer than those of the same age group would come to know by 1990. The culture of drinking changed, and the cultural narratives of alcohol advertising changed as well.
The industry insists that marketing efforts are not directed at underage drinkers. This statement is hard to falsify. However, there is ample evidence that market dominance of a few established national brands coupled with a yearly decrease in new nonloyal drinkers resulted in fiercer competition for the attention and loyalties of the young. The advertising resulting from this competition demonstrates the following paradox. Research has shown that underage drinking is common, with binge drinking constituting a serious public health problem. The trends in Figure 10.3, taken from the Monitoring the Future surveys, indicate that use of all kinds of alcohol is common by at least the tenth grade (ages 15 and 16). Clearly, adolescents have access to alcohol. However, the “beer is precious” narrative of so many recent beer advertisements suggests that the notion of needing to overcome barriers to obtain the product must be deeply resonant not only for the individuals who develop the ads, but for the audience groups with whom they pretest prior to airing. In fact, these themes would probably appeal to adults of drinking age, for they reflect the reality that many individuals experience illegal use of alcohol long before reaching age 21. For those of us who came of age after 1984, the drama of the underage quest for beer is a memorable aspect of adolescence. The notion that beer is precious, hard to get, worth defending, and constantly in threat of being taken away is an artifact of adolescent drinking culture, just as “rock, paper, scissors” resonates with early adolescent game culture. The frequent use of animal characters, some with cartoonlike qualities, also suggests that beer advertising aims to reach viewers below the legal drinking age (Kilbourne, 1999). By using narratives and themes that speak to adolescent drinking experiences, alcohol marketing co-opts, subverts, and ultimately benefits from efforts to reduce the harmful impact of underage alcohol use.
(p. 306 ) Other Advertising for Alcohol
We have focused entirely on television beer advertising to permit an historical analysis. However, there is considerable advertising on radio for beer products. Indeed, a recent analysis by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (2007b) found that a large proportion of radio ads (36%) for alcohol (mostly beer) were placed during periods when youth under the legal drinking age were more likely to be listening than adults. A new form of alcoholic beverage, flavored alcoholic drinks (also known as alcopops), have also been introduced in recent years. These products use sweeteners to virtually hide the taste of alcohol and are often branded with distilled-spirits labels (e.g., Smirnoff Ice). A survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (2001) found that 51% of adolescents ages 17 to 18 (and 35% of 14- to 16-year-olds) had tried these drinks while only 24% of adults had done so. Adolescents were much more likely to recall alcopop brands than adults, and girls were more likely to express a preference for these products than boys. Subsequent surveys of magazine advertising for alcoholic beverages found that female adolescents were exposed to over twice as much advertising for alcopops in 2002 as in 2001. This amounted to as much advertising as for the claimed target of these ads, women between the ages of 21 and 34 (Jernigan, Ostroff, Ross, & O’Hara, 2004). A survey sponsored by the (p. 307 ) American Medical Association (2004) found that adolescents were exposed to advertising for alcopops to a greater degree on television than on radio or magazines. All of these findings support to the conclusion that this new form of beverage is being marketed to entice female adolescents into the alcohol habit (Kilbourne, 1999). The findings also suggest that advertising for alcoholic drinks is reaching youth at a high rate.
Does alcohol advertising influence underage drinking? Although research suggests a relationship between exposure to advertising and underage drinking, the difficulty of proving causality in a complex media environment hampers the ability of researchers to reach definitive conclusions (Hastings, Anderson, Cooke, & Gordon, 2005). However, given the heavy exposure to alcohol advertising in the media, it is likely that youth are at least prompted to try alcoholic beverages, and the rapid rise in popularity of alcopops, especially in adolescent girls, strongly suggests that awareness of these products has been aided by advertising. Aside from these direct effects on youth, advertising practices play a role in shaping the larger cultural context for alcohol use and abuse (Gerbner, 1995), and further research into the relationship between advertising and problem drinking is needed to assess the potentially harmful effects of youth overexposure to alcohol advertising.
In response to accusations that they target youth, the alcohol industry argues that it would make bad business sense to pitch product to audiences who can’t legally purchase it (Rich, 1997; “TV beer ads defended,” 1956). In turn, media scholars and advertising practitioners argue that youth are valuable targets for building brand loyalty for many products (La Ferle, et al., 2001; Wright-Isak, Faber, & Horner, 1997; Zollo, 1999). Although Beer Institute marketing guidelines prohibit advertising on programs for whom young viewers exceed 30% of the total viewing audience, research has shown that, compared to viewers over age 21, youth are disproportionately exposed (that is, overexposed) to television (Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, 2006) and radio alcohol advertising (Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, 2007b). Research has suggested that a limit of 15% would more accurately reflect the proportion of children aged 12 to 20 in the population (Jernigan, Ostroff, & Ross, 2006).
Our analysis suggests that beer advertising relies on narratives that resonate with adolescent drinking culture. Hence, it is not surprising that such advertising would find a receptive audience among youth under the age of 21. One application of our findings toward understanding the link (p. 308 ) between media effects and underage drinking would be in the area of alcohol expectancies. Adolescents’ beliefs about their own eventual alcohol use have been assessed as mediating factors between advertising exposure and alcohol use (Christiansen, Smith, Roehling, & Goldman, 1989; Fleming, Thorson, & Atkin, 2004; Smith, Goldman, Greenbaum, & Christiansen, 1995). If researchers have a clearer sense of how advertisers depict the process of getting and keeping beer, the links between beliefs about the role of alcohol in adolescent culture and the thematic portrayals of alcohol use in television advertising can be more subtly drawn, and a more persuasive case for the reduction of youth overexposure to alcohol advertising might be made.
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