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August 20, 2009

Alcohol Ads Common Among Cable Shows Watched by Teens

Alcohol advertising on cable television is reaching a disproportionate number of teens, according to a study by researchers from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and UCLA. They examined the relationship between the level of teenage viewership and the frequency of alcohol advertising on cable television and found that ads for beer, spirits and alcopops brands such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice aired more frequently when more teens were watching. The results are published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

“Alcohol advertisers have pledged to avoid audiences made up of more than 30 percent underage viewers, such as children’s programming; however, many other shows have adolescent appeal,” said David Jernigan, PhD, co-author of the study and an associate professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society. “Our research found that each one percentage point increase in adolescent viewership was associated with 7 percent more beer, 15 percent more spirits and 22 percent more alcopop or low-alcohol refresher ads. These findings suggest that the industry’s voluntary self-monitoring is not working to reduce adolescent exposure to alcohol ads.”

Using advertising industry data from Nielsen Media Research, Jernigan, along with colleagues from UCLA, RAND, North Shore University Health System, Harvard and Virtual Media Resources, examined more than 600,000 national alcohol ads on cable television from 2001 to 2006. Among advertising placements complying with the industry’s current 30 percent standard, researchers found that audiences with a higher percentage of youth ages 12 to 20 were exposed to a higher frequency of alcohol ads, even after accounting for other factors that might explain ad placement decisions. In contrast, wine ads decreased 8 percent with each one percentage point increase in adolescent viewership, suggesting that alcohol advertisers can successfully avoid adolescent audiences. Based on these findings, the study suggests consideration of new guidelines and more independent monitoring of alcohol ads.

Multiple longitudinal studies have found that exposure to alcohol advertising likely influences young people’s drinking. “This study did not examine whether alcohol advertisers are intentionally overexposing adolescents,” said Paul Chung, MD, MS, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, senior natural scientist at RAND and director of the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion. “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. So it’s a lot harder for parents, teachers and clinicians to successfully encourage kids to delay drinking when so many things they’re seeing—on television, on billboards, on movie screens, on the Internet—are telling them otherwise.”

Currently cable television is the main outlet for alcohol advertising, attracting nearly 95 percent of all nationally televised alcohol ads. Alcohol remains the most commonly used substance of abuse by teens in the U.S. In addition, starting to drink as an adolescent rather than as an adult is linked with much greater risks of lifelong problem drinking.

“Association between Adolescent Viewership and Alcohol Advertising on Cable Television” was written by Paul J. Chung, Craig F. Garfield, Marc N. Elliott, Joshua Ostroff, Craig Ross, David H. Jernigan, Katherine D. Vestal and Mark A. Schuster.

This study was supported in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pfizer.

Media contact for Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Natalie Wood-Wright at 410-614-6029 or