Image Advertisements for Alcohol Products: Is There Appeal Associated with Adolescents' Intention to Consume Alcohol

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The controversy over the impact of alcohol advertising on alcohol consumption and attitudes about drinkers and drinking continues to mount. These debates have led to actual bans on alcohol advertising in some countries (Addiction Research Foundation, 1981) as well as to proposed legislation banning alcohol advertisements in others (Canadian Radio-Television Commission, 1990). Many proposals designed to minimize the impact of alcohol advertising have been put forth by legislators in the United States, with the requirement to place warnings in all forms of alcohol advertising receiving the most attention. Though the outcry directed at alcohol advertisers usually is concerned with the persuasive capabilities of advertising, more focused criticisms include the alleged targeting of underage drinkers through the use of appealing image advertising. Image advertising focuses on the lifestyle of the user of the product rather than on the intrinsic value of the product itself (Snyder & DeBono, 1985). The image advertisement, with varying degrees of subtlety, suggests that the depicted lifestyles can be attained by use of the product. Image advertisements rarely make any explicit mention of product quality. In contrast, product advertisements focus on claims about the merit of the product (e.g., the taste is delicious or product performance is excellent).

A common response from the alcohol industry to criticisms of their advertising is that the focus of alcohol advertising is to encourage existing drinkers to maintain their brand preference, or to switch brands, and that it is not intended to attract new customers (Waterson, 1989; Mosher & Wallack, 1981). Further, alcohol industry spokespersons point out that research has never proven a causative link between advertising and consumption. The industry advocates continued self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Authority and controls emanating from the Independent Broadcasting Authority (Circus, 1989). In addition, the alcohol industry believes that the proposed requirement of warnings in alcohol advertisements is an infringement of their First Amendment rights (Dunn, 1991).

The majority of studies investigating the impact of alcohol advertising on consumption are econometric. Generally, variables such as advertising expenditures are manipulated in regression models to determine the impact on sales (Duffy, 1981; Ogborne & Smart, 1980; Bourgeois & Barnes, 1979). The results of these studies have been inconclusive and equivocal (Aitken et al., 1988; Comstogk, 1976). One of the limitations in using regression analyses of sales as a function of other variables is that sales analyses cannot reflect consumption by minors - the very audience that critics claim to be most vulnerable to alcohol advertising - since minors are not included in alcohol sales figures. The same limitation holds true in empirical and quasi experiments. Since these studies rely on observed purchasing behavior or consumption, it is not ethically or legally possible to measure the impact of advertising on adolescent consumption in this way.

Although self-reports of attitudes and behaviors are often criticized as not verifiable and therefore potentially unreliable, this methodology is one of the few viable alternatives for studying the impact of alcohol advertising on underage youth. Studies using this methodology most commonly investigate associations between exposure to advertising and consumption. Atkin, Hocking, and Block (1984) found significant associations between exposure to alcohol advertising and self-reported consumption of liquor among teenagers. Further, they found that among those adolescents who had not yet begun drinking, those with heavy exposure to alcohol advertising were more likely than their counterparts with more limited exposure to indicate that they plan to drink in the future (59% versus 36%). In a survey of 1,200 12- to 22-year-olds, a moderately positive correlation was found between the amount of day-to-day exposure to beer, wine, and liquor ads and both excessive alcohol consumption and drinking in hazardous situations (Atkin, Neuendorf, & McDermott, 1983). …