Decades-Long Increase In Alcohol Ads Hasn't Translated To More Drinking

By McCarton Ackerman 04/03/15

A study aimed to prove the lack of relationship between alcohol and advertising. 


Alcohol brands are spending more money than ever on advertising, but it may not be a wise investment. A new study has found that despite alcohol ads increasing by more than 400% over 40 years, it’s done little to impact the amount of alcohol that Americans drink. 

The findings from the University of Texas at Austin looked at alcohol sales and advertising between 1971 and 2011. Total spending on alcohol ads didn’t even hit the $100 million mark until the mid-‘80s, but that number reached nearly $543 million in 2011. Although there have been a few minor ebbs and flows from year-to-year, spending and total number of alcohol ads have remained an upward trend.

However, alcohol consumption per capita in the U.S. was the lowest it had been in 2011 since the mid-‘70s. The total amount ranged from 22.2 to 28.8 gallons of alcohol per capita, with the peak number coming in 1981. Americans consumed an average of 24.6 gallons per capita in 2011.

"Relating these findings to previous research reveals a consistency in that there is either no relationship or a weak one between advertising and aggregate sales," stated the report. "Over this time period, beer sales have exhibited a downward trend since the early 1990s, while wine and liquor have increased their share of total alcohol sales. This is despite large increases in advertising expenditures across all three categories of alcohol."

The scientists in the study found that while a compelling ad might make the viewer more compelled to purchase that brand of alcohol, this doesn’t translate to them consuming more of it. Their findings suggest that the ban on alcohol ads, which many U.S. cities have implemented, may not be an effective method for reducing problem drinking.

“Remedies that would restrict or overly regulate such communication activities usually do not have the desired effect of reducing consumption,” noted Gary Wilcox, the study’s lead author and an advertising professor. "A more logical alternative would be to communicate as much information as possible to the public about the subject and encourage all viewpoints so our society makes an autonomous, rational choice regarding alcohol consumption."

However, many of the bans imposed by cities are to limit underage viewing of alcohol ads. A 2008 study on Boston’s public transit system found that 54% of public school students saw alcohol ads on buses and trains. Los Angeles recently addressed this issue by banning alcohol advertising from all forms of public transit and bus shelters.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.