Do Alcohol Ads on Facebook Make People Drink More?

By Dorri Olds 06/01/16

A recent study examined whether alcohol ads on social media sites could actually affect a consumer's alcohol-related behavior. 

Do Alcohol Ads on Facebook Make People Drink More?

A recent study asked whether alcohol ads on Facebook affect users’ alcohol-related behaviors. According to Forbes, the Michigan State University study “found that alcohol advertising on social media succeeds in encouraging people to drink.” However, that is a huge over-simplification of the study’s findings.

To test how Facebook ads influence users' tendency to drink, 121 participants were exposed to Facebook ads for either a brand of beer or a brand of bottled water. They were then offered a gift card for either a bar or coffee shop as a reward for participating in the study. The results show that 73% of those who were exposed to the beer ads chose the bar gift card, while 55% of those who saw the water ads chose the bar gift card. “Participants were more likely to select a bar than a coffee shop gift card upon exposure to beer versus water ads," the researchers concluded.

But—and it's a big but—selecting a bar gift card versus a coffee shop gift card could have less to do with the type of ads the participants were shown, and more to do with their own personal tastes. The researchers wrote, “We can see that the main effect of advertised beverage type was significant only for gift card choice but not for intentions to consume alcohol.” 

Forbes did point out that liquor costs more than coffee, so perhaps the bar gift cards seemed like they would be more of a treat. Still, it noted that the study's findings are noteworthy.

According to the study authors, being exposed to messages embedded in social media has a significant impact on users' behavior in the digital era. "Results show that seeing an alcohol ad on Facebook is sufficient to elevate individuals’ interest in visiting a bar where alcohol is available," they wrote. "Our findings highlight the alarming nature of alcohol advertising in social media."

It seems unclear how they made that leap to judgment. Those who chose the bar gift card are not automatically going to drink to excess, or drink and drive. They could easily order a single beer, a burger, or potato chips.

It has never been explicitly proven that subliminal advertising can manipulate a customer into buying something. The first time anyone heard of subliminal advertising was in 1957 when market researcher James Vicary slipped the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie. The words appeared in a single frame, too short for people to register what they'd seen, but allegedly just long enough for the subconscious to get the message. Vicary claimed it was responsible for an 18.1% increase in Coke sales and a 57.8% increase in popcorn sales—but this turned out to be false.

While subliminal advertising may in fact exist in alcohol advertising, this study fails to prove that the alcohol ads on Facebook actually had an effect on viewers' drinking habits. 

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.