Advertising, Alcohol, and Youth: Is the Alcoholic Beverage Industry Targeting Minors with Magazine Ads?

By Nelson, Jon P. | Regulation, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Advertising, Alcohol, and Youth: Is the Alcoholic Beverage Industry Targeting Minors with Magazine Ads?


Nelson, Jon P., Regulation


IN 2001, THE U.S. ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE INDUSTRY spent more than $1.5 billion on advertising using conventional broadcast and print media. That total includes expenditures of $397 million on magazine advertisements. The magnitude of expenditures and the possibility that some ads might "target" youth have generated concern about the adverse effects of alcohol advertising.

Demonstrating that advertising has an effect on alcohol consumption, rather than brand equity, has proven to be elusive. A report to Congress in 2000 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concluded that "the results of research on the effects of alcohol advertising are mixed and not conclusive." A recent report by the National Research Council's Institute of Medicine, which was conducted at the behest of Congress, reached much the same conclusion. Nevertheless, the Council recommended heightened regulation of alcohol advertising.

FIRST AMENDMENT CONSIDERATIONS

Efforts to regulate alcohol advertising raise several issues, not the least of which is the question of whether such regulation violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. A long series of Supreme Court decisions, culminating in Central Hudson in 1980 and 44 Liquormart in 1996, demonstrate that commercial speech enjoys attenuated First Amendment rights, and those rights are not trumped by the restrictions on alcohol distribution contained in the 21st Amendment.

In Central Hudson, the Court laid out a four-prong approach to regulation of commercial speech:

* The message content cannot be misleading and must be concerned with a lawful activity or product.

* The government's interest in regulating the speech in question must be substantial.

* The regulation must directly and materially advance that interest.

* The regulation must be no more extensive than necessary to achieve its goal; that is, there must be a "reasonable fit" between means and ends, with the means narrowly tailored to achieve the objective.

Central Hudson requires a "balancing-of-interests" test to examine regulation of commercial speech, including alcohol advertisements. The test weighs the government's obligations toward freedom of expression with its interest in limiting the content of some advertisements. In statistical language, the test reduces the risk of a false positive or "Type I" error--regulating commercial speech unnecessarily because of an incorrect inference that the speech affects behavior that is of legitimate public concern. Reasonable constraints on time, place, and manner are tolerated, and false or deceptive advertising remains illegal. However, in order for a regulation of alcohol advertising to pass constitutional scrutiny, it must be demonstrated that the advertising deliberately or unnecessarily targets youth or the advertisements result in alcohol abuse by youth. Thus, Central Hudson delineates the empirical studies and results that are likely to be relevant to policymakers and regulators.

EVALUATING MAGAZINE ADS

Early research on alcohol advertising in magazines was based on the method of content analysis, which attempts to demonstrate targeting of youth by examining the content dimensions of alcohol ads. Content-analysis studies tend to employ overly broad categories to codify various "lifestyle themes" in advertising and impute motivations to advertisers based on largely subjective judgements about the themes used in the ads. The evidence provided by content analyses tends to be informal and anecdotal in nature, and it stops short of the evidence that would likely satisfy the Central Hudson test.

PLACEMENT STUDIES Given the shortcomings of content analyses, more recent studies attempt to measure exposure to alcohol advertisements by adolescents and youth, including two studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). In a brief article published in 2000, a team of researchers led by Lori Sanchez examined advertising placements in a sample of 15 magazines from July 1997 to July 1998. …

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