Alcohol Advertising Policies in the United States: National Promotion and Control Initiatives

Article excerpt

This article describes policy developments in alcohol advertising and counter-advertising at the U.S. national level, including federally mandated warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers, the campaign for health warnings on broadcast advertising, the end of the voluntary ban on advertising of distilled spirits on television and radio, and the debate concerning a health-benefits label on wine products. Federal legislative documents and media accounts provided the context for 64 key-informant interviews with persons working for the federal government, the alcohol industry, public health, and research and media organizations. A decline in per capita alcohol consumption in the 1980s and 1990s and concurrent demographic shifts in the U.S. population have given impetus to controversial advertising campaigns and their opposition. The policy case studies show disagreement among key players about the impact of advertising on consumption and problems, need for controls, benefits of regulation and counter-advertising, and need for federal-level legislation.

KEY WORDS: Alcohol, advertising, policy, United States, federal government.

Introduction and literature synopsis

In this article we focus on U.S. national developments in alcohol advertising and counter-advertising in the 1980s and 1990s. Our expectation was that by taking a sharp look at some specific policies and legislative proposals, we could discover principles of the policy process that might be applied in situations beyond the ones we chose to study. Several questions are examined: What important federal policy initiatives took place in the promotion and control of alcohol advertising during the 1980s and 1990s, and how did they evolve? What is the perspective of key players looking back on these initiatives, and what do they say about such factors as the impact of jurisdictional considerations, intra-industry dynamics, and the relative power of the alcohol industry in influencing the policy process versus the relative power of the public health sector? How do the policy experiences examined here fit and interplay with alcohol research and public opinion? What suggestions emerge for further research and positive policy development in the decades ahead? To set the stage, we provide a synopsis of recent research on alcohol advertising and counter-advertising. This is followed by a brief description of the methods used, discussion of five national developments that occurred within the selected time period, and an analysis of highlights from the perspectives of major players whom we interviewed.

Research on advertising and per capita consumption

Advertising is a form of alcohol promotion, along with sponsorship, competitive pricing, low taxes, high outlet density, long hours of sale, and other environmental boosters in purveying alcoholic beverages. It continues to receive attention in public health, commercial, and government communities in many countries (Montonen, 1996; Sulkunen, 1998; Babor et al., 2003; Giesbrecht and Greenfield, 2003). Research on the effect of advertising on per capita consumption and youth is especially relevant to deliberations about controls on advertising. Advertising communicates "a legitimizing meta-message contributing to the social availability of alcoholic beverages" (Montonen, 1996, p. 70; see also Atkin, 1990; Strasburger, 1993).

While several studies suggest that advertising has a small contributory impact on sales and therefore on consumption (Duffy, 1991; Makowsky & Whitehead, 1991; Saffer, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2000), the effect of advertising on per capita consumption found in empirical studies has been weak, which may be due to confounding cultural, social, and economic influences. Some of these studies neglect indirect but powerful forms of advertising, such as sponsorship of sporting events (see Hill & Casswell, 2001). A common industry argument is that "advertising affects only market share and does not increase the overall consumption of alcoholic beverages" (review in Montonen, 1996, p. …