Teens don't catch warnings in alcohol ads

By Roxana Orellana
The Salt Lake Tribune

A new study by Brigham Young University researchers suggests teenagers miss the "Drink responsibly" messages when looking at alcohol ads.

"Basically the adolescents, they don't really see the responsibility message," said Steven Thomsen, a professor of communications at BYU and lead researcher on the study, which will be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "Those who see it, do [so] for a minimal time."

But a spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry group that represents liquor distillers, said the study is "flawed" because such alcohol warnings are not aimed at teens.

The study, which took more than a year to complete, evolved from a previous project in which Thomsen and his group analyzed the content of alcohol ads in Rolling Stone magazine. During that research, Thomsen said he noticed some of the advertisers included "Drink responsibly" messages but that the type size was relatively small.

Interested in how effective the "very small" print was on teenagers and if the messages were even noticed, Thomsen recruited 63 middle schoolers with an average age of 13, to assess the association between attention to and recollection of the messages' content.
"The reason we chose early adolescents is because that's when they are making the initial decision whether they'll try alcohol," Thomsen said.

Each teen was hooked up to a device that used the reflection in the cornea and pupil to track eye movements when they were looking at the ads. Teens spent an average of seven seconds looking at the ads but only 0.35 seconds looking at moderation messages, according to the study. They spent more time looking at bottles, product names, models and headlines than moderation messages. Immediately after looking at the ad, most of the teens could not remember the general concept of the responsibility message.

Thomsen said he and co-author Kristin Fulton were motivated by social and health concerns.  "I thought it's nice the responsibility messages are included. The question is, 'Are they effective?' " Thomsen said. "If they are not effective, what can we do to make them more effective?"

The Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group, has adopted a voluntary advertising code that mandates including responsible-drinking statements in alcohol beverage advertisements, marketing materials and promotional events when practicable.
Neither the ads nor the messages are aimed at teens, but Thomsen cites a 2004 study by Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth that showed middle and high school students are exposed to more beer and liquor ads than people their parents' age.

"While we are grateful the alcohol companies do this, they need to do a better job making it more visible, particularly for the underage audience," ThomĀsen said.

Lisa Hawkins, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council, said the messages are not intended for teenagers. "The messages referred to in the study as 'Enjoy our products responsibly' are meant to encourage adults who drink to be responsible and are not intended for those under the legal drinking age," Hawkins said.


"There is no such thing as responsible drinking if you are under 21. It's against the law."
Distillers are committed to combating underage drinking with a number of other initiatives, Hawkins added.

Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, also based in Washington, D.C., said brewers spend more than $50 million a year on prevention programs to help fight underage drinking.

"Our members' responsibility [in] advertising is only one part of a large and comprehensive approach to dealing with this very serious issue, which also includes helping parents talk with their children about the consequences of illegal underage drinking, preventing youth access to alcohol and working with educators, law enforcement, state and federal alcohol beverage regulators, community leaders and others," Becker said.
He said brewers abide by the institute's advertising and marketing code by placing ads only in magazines where at least 70 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 and older.

Vicki Carman, program supervisor for the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Valley Mental Health, said studies such as Thomsen's can help treatment specialists in their work with teenage substance abusers.

"The more information we have on how the adolescent mind works, the more effectively we can do our job," Carman said.