Between 2001 and 2006, alcohol ads on cable increased with the percentage of teens in the audience, according to a study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) and UCLA to be published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Cable accounts for about 95% of alcohol advertising on TV, according to the group.
The study does not assert advertisers on cable were targeting youth, but it says self-regulations don't appear to be working. Advertisers strongly disagree.
The ad industry pledged in 2003 to further limit its advertising in TV shows reaching a youth audience, saying its goal was to limit advertising to shows whose audience was no more than 30% youth ages 12-20, down from its previous standard of 50%.
According to an abstract supplied by one of the co-authors, the ad industry has been very successful in that goal. "Almost all alcohol ads appeared in time slots with audiences made up of 30% or fewer underage viewers," said the study.
But the study also found that as viewership increased from 0% to that 30% maximum in shows carrying alcohol ads, there was a "striking correlation" with an increase in the number of those ads. For every 1% increase in teen audience, for example, there was a 7% increase in beer ads, a 15% boost in ads for distilled spirits, and a 15% increase in ads for so-called alopops, or flavored, sweet grain beverages.
By contrast, wine ads decreased the more adolescent viewers there were, suggesting to CAMY that "advertisers can, in fact, successfully avoid adolescent audiences."
CAMY has long pushed for advertisers to cut that figure in half to only a 15% youth audience.
CAMY Director David H. Jernigan said in announcing the study findings that alcohol ads are "aimed at groups that include a disproportionate number of teens," concluding that the self-monitoring efforts by the industry "are not working to reduce adolescent exposure to ads."
CAMY did not accuse the industry of intentionally targeting youth. "This study did not examine whether alcohol advertisers are intentionally overexposing adolescents," said lead author Dr. Paul J. Chung, who was cited by CAMY. "However, the ultimate effect of their advertising strategies, intentional or not, appears to be greater exposure than might be expected if adults were the sole targets of ads."
Not surprisingly, the ad industry saw it differently.
The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth's conclusion in its recent study that teens are "over-exposed" to alcohol advertising obscures the fact that while advertising on cable television increased from 2001-2006, federal government statistics clearly show that alcohol consumption among 8th, 10th and 12th graders has declined over the past decade," said the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) in response to the study.
"DISCUS and experts in the advertising research field have long disagreed with CAMY's assertions, and the FTC has pointed out flaws in CAMY's methodology in its 2003 and 2008 reports on alcohol advertising."
"The distilled spirits industry is committed to responsible advertising guided by its rigorous Code of Responsible Practices, with its 70% 21 years of age and older demographic standard and transparent public reports. The Code has been held up as model of social responsibility by regulators, industry critics, the media and, interestingly, by the former executive director of CAMY."
Advertisers in the past have responded that the 30% benchmark is already a substantial tightening from the previous 50% benchmark, and one that got a shout-out from the Federal Trade Commission. They also point out that compliance, even with that 30%, is problematic because it is based on predictions of audience that can shift.
"Let's be clear, we are all concerned about underage drinking," says Adonis Hoffman, senior VP and counsel to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, "and advertisers have reflected a remarkable level of responsibility in their messaging. But we also should acknowledge that the rules for free, over-the-air broadcasting and paid-for subscription cable television are different," he says, as are the public interest obligations.
Hoffman says that fact that viewers "choose to pay" for cable "allows [them] to obtain content that otherwise is not available on free TV. This business model and marketplace reality gives advertisers a bit more latitude in the marketing messages they provide. Even with that model, I believe the alcohol industry has shown a keen sense of understanding societal values-that we don't want kids drinking-and that is confirmed by the reduction in the actual numbers of teenage drinking today."
"The FTC has examined the various self-regulatory codes of the beer, wine and distilled spirits groups, and has said the vast majority of that advertising is directed to adults," says Dan Jaffe, EVP of the Association of National Advertisers.