The beer industry’s advertising and marketing activities are supposed to follow certain self-imposed guidelines, like those requiring that models in ads be at least 25 and that marketing material avoid content that primarily appeals to people too young to drink.
It’s one of the reasons you don’t see beer ads featuring Santa Claus.
But that system of self-regulation isn’t working, a team of researchers led by UConn professor Thomas Babor concluded after analyzing beer ads broadcast during NCAA basketball tournaments.
Many of the 289 ads violated the beer industry’s advertising code, making exaggerated product representations, or including content that appealed primarily to people under the legal drinking age, they found. And the ads that violated the industry’s code were broadcast more often than those that didn’t.
“[T]he findings of this study are consistent with evidence from other research showing that alcohol industry self-regulation programs are ineffective at preventing content violations,” Babor, a professor of community medicine and public health at the UConn Health Center, and his colleagues wrote in the article, which was published today in the American Journal of Public Health.
The article also took issue with the industry’s method for reviewing potentially problematic ads, saying that review boards are “often dominated by industry-appointed consultants having no public health experience,” and that review procedures aren’t standardized.
Babor said he and his colleagues were surprised to find “such a high level of code violations.” He said he would favor an outright ban on alcohol marketing, similar to the prohibition on tobacco marketing.
“According to our study, for ten years the beer industry has been targeting young people with advertisements that violate its own self-regulation codes,” Babor said by email from New Zealand, where he is lecturing. “Unless the responsibility for pre-vetting ads is transferred to an independent authority charged with protecting vulnerable populations, we cannot expect much improvement by the industry.”
Joe McClain, president of the Beer Institute, a trade group, said he couldn’t comment on a study he hadn’t been able to review, but said the industry is “deeply committed to responsible advertising practices.”
“It should be pointed out that research shows that, by far, parents, not advertising, have the most influence on teens’ drinking decisions,” McClain said in a statement. “We actively work to reduce the underage drinking rate and while we recognize that more work needs to be done, the federal government is reporting some of the lowest levels of underage drinking since they started tracking this data.”
McClain noted that the Beer Institute’s marketing and advertising code includes a review by independent parties.
Babor’s study involved 289 ads for beer that were broadcast nationally during NCAA tournaments from 1999 to 2008. Fifteen academic and public health experts watched the ads and rated them on questions related to the Beer Institute code.
The percentage of ads deemed to violate some part of the code ranged from 35 percent to 74 percent, depending on the specific code used — the Beer Institute updated its 1997 code in 2006 — as well as the criteria used and method of scoring.
The most violations involved a prohibition against showing the act of drinking.
Other provisions of the code that were most frequently violated, according to the study, were those that say beer ads should not make exaggerated product representations, should portray the beverages in a responsible manner, and shouldn’t claim that beer is necessary to achieve success or solve problems.
About one in five ads, by one analysis, weren’t just intended for people over 21, and 5 percent had actors who weren’t clearly over the drinking age.
The alcohol industry’s system of self-regulation has faced criticism, Babor and his colleagues noted, including allegations that the codes are ambiguous, might not prevent many young people from being exposed to alcohol marketing, and that the process for handling complaints is inefficient and possibly biased.
In the case of the beer industry, they said, the review boards only address ads that have received complaints from the public.
The Federal Trade Commission monitors the industries’ compliance with their own standards, and has issued periodic reports. In its 2008 report, the commission said that “a well-constructed self-regulatory regime has advantages over government regulation. It conserves limited government resources and is more prompt and flexible than government regulation.”
In particular, the report said, self-regulation is the appropriate response to concerns about alcohol advertising to youth “in light of protections provided by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The FTC report examined review board activities from 2006. That year, the Beer Institute’s review board considered four complaints, while the Wine Institute’s board didn’t consider any. The review board for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or DISCUS, handled 22 complaints, 10 of which were about ads from non-members. DISCUS’ review board was the only one of the three that issued any decisions against an advertiser.
The FTC noted that there have been calls for barring industry members from the review boards, but that it didn’t appear necessary. The Beer Institute’s review board was the only one of the three at the time that was made up entirely of outside experts, according to the report.
The research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Besides Babor, the other authors were Donna Damon and Jonathan Noel from UConn and Ziming Xuan from the Boston University School of Public Health.