Alcohol in the Media

views updated


The presentation of alcohol and other drugs in the media has received both scrutiny and criticism. As a result, researchers have started to explore the types of portrayals of, in particular, alcohol use in television programs and advertisements and the influence of those portrayals on adolescents.

Television Depiction of Alcohol Use

Multiple studies indicate an abundance of alcohol use in entertainment programming. In their review of prime-time television content from 1976 to 1982, Warren Breed and his colleagues (1984) found that in the television world, alcohol was the most consumed beverage, followed by coffee, tea, soft drinks, and then water. In reality, the pattern of consumption is the opposite. Alan Mathios and his associates (1998) looked at almost three hundred prime-time programs during the 1994-1995 television season. They found that alcohol use was portrayed on television more frequently than the use of any other food or drink. Even music television portrays a great deal of alcohol use. Robert DuRant and his colleagues (1997) reviewed more than five hundred videos shown on VH1 (Video Hits 1), MTV (Music Television), BET (Black Entertainment Television), and CMT (Country Music Television). More than 25 percent of the videos included alcohol use.

Characters who drink on television tend to be well liked, professional, and wealthy. Mathios and his colleagues (1998) reported that characters in the high socioeconomic category were much more likely to drink than were those in the low socioeconomic category. Breed and his colleagues (1984) reported that characters who drank on television were mostly professionals, including doctors, lawyers, executives, and detectives.

Lawrence Wallack and his associates (1990) found that very few young people depicted on television drink; in their study of fictional prime-time network programming in 1986, less than 5 percent of the characters under twenty-one years of age were involved with alcohol use. The most common age range for characters preparing or ingesting alcohol was thirty to thirty-nine years of age. Mathios's study (1998) reported a slightly higher use of alcohol by teenage characters on television; almost 10 percent of the alcohol incidents in their sample occurred among teenage characters.

Depictions of alcohol use on television are rarely negative. Wallack and his colleagues (1990) categorized portrayals of alcohol use as attractive, unattractive, or neutral. Under this categorization, 60 percent of all alcohol-related activities were neutral and more than 25 percent were considered attractive. When adolescent characters were compared to adult characters, however, the incidents of alcohol use that involved the younger characters were more likely to be coded as unattractive than were the incidents involving the older characters. Mathios and his associates (1998) rated the personality of the characters in the programs they reviewed. Among adult characters, those who used alcohol were portrayed as being more positive than those who did not. On the other hand, among adolescent characters, those who drank tended to receive more negative ratings than those who did not.

Advertisements and Alcohol

Correlational research indicates that media exposure is associated with the perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of young people. A questionnaire study conducted by Larry Tucker (1985) and involving high school males indicated that viewers who watched a great deal to television had significantly higher levels of alcohol use per month than did viewers who watched comparatively less television. Gary Connolly and his colleagues (1994), who were also interested in the link between television viewing and alcohol consumption, conducted a study that followed participants over several years. Respondents were queried about their television viewing habits at ages thirteen and fifteen and their alcohol consumption at age eighteen. The researchers found that the more television the female subjects watched overall at ages thirteen and fifteen, the greater were their reported beer, wine, and liquor consumption at age eighteen. For males, there was no significant relationship between viewing at ages thirteen and fifteen and consumption at age eighteen.

An area more widely researched than entertainment portrayals of alcohol use is alcohol advertising. Joel Grube (1993) points out that the major themes associated with advertisements for alcohol are sociability, elegance, physical attractiveness, success, relaxation, romance, and adventure. Donald Strickland and his associates (1982) reviewed alcohol advertisements from almost five hundred magazines published between 1978 and 1982 in search of themes that dominated these advertisements. While most advertisements focused on the products, some included human models. They found that the models in the advertisements were predominantly between twenty-five and thirty-four years of age and that the activities depicted in the advertisements included primarily drinking by itself; however, drinking after work and drinking related to a sports event were also depicted.

Patricia Madden and Grube (1994) looked at both the themes and the frequency of advertising beer on television. They found more than two alcohol commercials per hour during major professional sports programs, about one per hour during college sports and one every four hours during prime-time fictional entertainment. One of the concerns emerging from this study was related to the content of the advertisements. Cars and other vehicles were present in more than 15 percent of the advertisements and water activities were present in 25 percent of the advertisements. Although alcohol use while operating vehicles is not advocated, it is interesting that the advertisements include these and other activities that might be hazardous for those who have been drinking.

There have been several studies concerning the effects of alcohol advertisements on young people. Lisa Lieberman and Mario Orlandi (1987) asked almost three thousand New York City sixth-grade students to recall and describe alcohol advertisements that they had seen on television. Eighty-five percent of the children could recall at least one advertisement. When asked what types of people were in the advertisements, the most frequently cited types were sports figures, celebrities, models and actors, and wealthy people. Almost 90 percent of the participants said the people in the advertisements were young adults.

Grube and Wallack (1994) interviewed fifth-and sixth-grade students about their awareness of alcohol advertising and their perceptions, attitudes, and behavioral intentions regarding alcohol consumption. The researchers reported that the more aware students were of alcohol advertisements, the more positive their beliefs were about drinking. More positive beliefs about alcohol were associated with indications of likelihood to drink as an adult.

Because much of the alcohol advertising occurs during sporting events, some researchers have focused their attention on exposure to these events and attitudes toward alcohol. Paul Bloom and his colleagues (1997) surveyed individuals who were between thirteen and eighteen years of age. Those individuals who reported watching a large amount of professional football and professional baseball on television had greater intentions to drink than those who reported watching a smaller amount of these types of programs.


The research on the portrayal of alcohol use in entertainment programming and in commercial advertisements is fairly consistent. The image of alcohol use presented by the media is one that shows it as a relatively problem-free activity. This is enhanced by the fact that the individuals shown using alcohol are celebrities, wealthy, professional, successful, and attractive. The survey research, which provides correlational data, thus far points to an association between exposure to these portrayals and positive perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors regarding alcohol. Further investigations into the effects of portrayals should include experimental as well as survey research.

See also:Tobacco and Media Effects.


Aitken, P. P.; Eadie, D. R.; Leathar, D. S.; McNeill, R. E.J.; and Scott, A.C. (1988). "Television Advertisements for Alcoholic Drinks Do Reinforce Under-Age Drinking." British Journal of Addiction 83:1399-1419.

Bloom, Paul N.; Hogan, John E.; and Blazing, Jennifer.(1997). "Sports Promotion and Teen Smoking and Drinking: An Exploratory Study." American Journal of Health Behavior 21:100-109.

Breed, Warren; De Foe, James R.; and Wallack, Lawrence. (1984). "Drinking in the Mass Media: A Nine-Year Project." Journal of Drug Issues Fall:655-663.

Connolly, Gary M.; Casswell, Sally; Zhang, Jia-Fang; and Silva, Phil A. (1994). "Alcohol in the Mass Media and Drinking by Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study." Addiction 89:1255-1263.

De Foe, James R.; Breed, Warren; and Breed, Lawrence A. (1983). "Drinking in Television: A Five-Year Study." Journal of Drug Education 13:25-37.

DuRant, Robert H.; Rome, Ellen S.; Rich, Michael;Allred, Elizabeth; Emans, S. Jean; and Woods, Elizabeth R. (1997). "Tobacco and Alcohol Use Behaviors Portrayed in Music Videos: A Content Analysis." American Journal of Public Health 87:1131-1135.

Fernandez-Collado, Carlos; Greenberg, Bradley;Korzenny, Felipe; and Atkin, Charles. (1978). "Sexual Intimacy and Drug Use in TV Series." Journal of Communication 28:30-37.

Grube, Joel W. (1993). "Alcohol Portrayals and Alcohol Advertising on Television." Alcohol Health and Research World 17:61-66.

Grube, Joel W., and Wallack, Lawrence. (1994). "Television Beer Advertising and Drinking Knowledge, Beliefs, and Intentions Among School Children." American Journal of Public Health 84(2):254-259.

Lieberman, Lisa R., and Orlandi, Mario A. (1987). "Alcohol Advertising and Adolescent Drinking." Alcohol Health and Research World 3:30-43.

MacDonald, Patrick T. (1983). "The 'Dope' on Soaps."Journal of Drug Education 13:359-369.

Madden, Patricia A., and Grube, Joel W. (1994). "The Frequency and Nature of Alcohol and Tobacco Advertising in Televised Sports, 1990 through 1992." Public Health Briefs 84(2):297-299.

Mathios, Alan; Avery, Rosemary; Bisogni, Carol; and Shanahan, James. (1998). "Alcohol Portrayal on Prime Time Television: Manifest and Latent Messages." Journal of Studies on Alcohol 59:305-310.

Slater, Michael D.; Rouner, Donna; Murphy, Kevin;Beauvais, Frederick; Van Leuven, James; and Domenech-Rodriguez, Melanie M. (1996). "Male Adolescents' Reactions to TV Beer Advertisements: The Effects of Sports Content and Programming Context." Journal of Studies on Alcohol 57:425-433.

Strickland, Donald E.; Finn, T. Andrew; and Lambert, M. Dow. (1982). "A Content Analysis of Beverage Alcohol Advertising." Journal of Studies on Alcohol 43:655-682.

Tucker, Larry A. (1985). "Television's Role Regarding Alcohol Use among Teenagers." Adolescence 20:593-598.

Wallack, Lawrence; Breed, Warren; and DeFoe, James R. (1985). "Alcohol and Soap Operas: Drinking in the Light of Day." Journal of Drug Education 15:365-379.

Wallack, Lawrence; Grube, Joel W.; Madden, Patricia A.; and Breed, Warren. (1990). "Portrayals of Alcohol on Prime-Time Television." Journal of Studies on Alcohol 51:428-437.

Linda C. Godbold

About this article

Alcohol in the Media

Updated About content Print Article


Alcohol in the Media