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This study is the first investigation to explore the alcohol brand preferences of underage youth via a national survey. We conducted a pilot study of a new, internet-based alcohol brand survey with 108 youth ages 16–20 years who were recruited from an existing panel and had consumed alcohol in the past month. We ascertained respondents’ consumption of each of 380 alcohol brands during the past 30 days, including which brands of alcohol were consumed during heavy drinking episodes. Our findings suggest that, despite the wide variety of alcohol brands consumed by older adolescents in this study, alcohol preferences are concentrated among a relatively small number of brands. Accurate measurements of alcohol brand preferences will enable important new research into the factors that influence youth drinking behavior. This study establishes the feasibility and validity of a new methodology to determine patterns of brand-specific alcohol consumption among underage drinkers.
Alcohol use among adolescents is a major public health problem [1–4]. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to approximately 4,600 deaths and 275,000 years of potential life lost among underage youth annually in the United States . Adequate surveillance of youth alcohol use is essential to identify the causes of youth drinking in order to plan interventions to prevent its consequences. Although there have been several investigations that examined the types of alcoholic beverages consumed by adolescents (e.g., beer, liquor, wine) [6,7], we are unaware of any previous studies that reported on the alcohol brands (e.g., Bud Light, Bacardi Silver) consumed by underage youth. This is a critical gap in the literature. Alcohol is marketed and consumed at the brand level, and without any idea of the brands that youth are drinking, it is impossible to develop a complete understanding of the factors—such as alcohol marketing—that influence their drinking behavior.
In 2003, the Institute of Medicine noted this serious flaw in the existing alcohol research literature and recommended the collection of alcohol brand preference data from underage drinkers . To date, however, there are no published national data on youth alcohol consumption at the brand level. This paper presents our efforts to fill this glaring deficiency by conducting a pilot study which we believe is the first survey to comprehensively ascertain youth alcohol brand preferences using a national sample of drinking youth.
Elucidating the brand-specific patterns of alcohol consumption among underage youth would make four important contributions. First, identifying the brands popular among young drinkers would allow researchers to examine the relationship between brand-specific advertising exposure and brand-specific alcohol consumption, thus providing the strongest evidence to date regarding whether advertising influences youth drinking. While previous studies have documented that underage youth are heavily and disproportionately exposed to alcohol advertising for a number of alcohol brands [8–10], without knowing whether youth are actually drinking these brands, we cannot determine whether the advertising is actually affecting their alcohol consumption.
Second, identifying the brands of alcohol that youth consume would greatly enhance our understanding of the factors that influence youth alcohol use. For example, identifying differences in alcohol brands consumed by different age groups and by youth with differing frequencies or intensity of alcohol use may provide insights into the factors that influence the progression of alcohol use behavior.
Third, ascertaining youth alcohol use by brand may result in a more accurate description of drinking behavior among youth. Previous research has established that greater specificity in asking about alcoholic beverage types results in higher self-reported consumption [11,12]. By extension, inquiring about specific alcohol brands could result in the most accurate assessment of youth alcohol consumption to date. In fact, Casswell et al.  found that asking subjects to report the brands of alcohol they consume was one of the key factors in their ability to account for 94% of per capita alcohol consumption (as measured by sales data), as compared with less than 60% in prior surveys [14,15].
Fourth, identifying the patterns of alcohol brand consumption among youth will help establish the feasibility of including alcohol brand use questions on federal or national surveys. A number of national surveys assess cigarette brand preference, which is feasible because cigarette brand use is concentrated among a relatively small number of brands. If alcohol brand consumption is also concentrated among a relatively small number of brands, then assessments of youth alcohol brand preference in national or federal surveys would be highly feasible since only a limited number of brands would need to be listed.
In this paper, we report the results of a pilot study which we believe is the first national survey dedicated to measuring alcohol brand preferences among underage youth. Although this pilot study has a relatively small sample size, these findings do provide the first national data on youth brand preferences. No previously published paper reports either brand-specific or type-specific alcohol consumption with the comprehensiveness of our survey.
A major reason for the absence of studies on alcohol brand use among youth is the lack of an established methodology to collect such data. There are hundreds of major alcohol brands so researchers have assumed that it would take too long to collect such data, making brand research costly and impracticable. Yet, by using a combination of carefully crafted skip patterns, piping questions (using responses from previous questions on brand use to elicit more detailed information on alcohol consumption patterns for the identified brands), and internet forms that include lists of brands with check boxes, we developed a survey instrument that assesses alcohol brand preferences within a reasonable time frame.
This pilot study was designed to determine our ability to use a pre-existing internet panel to administer the survey to a national sample of underage youth and obtain a valid assessment of their alcohol consumption.
To conduct our survey, we utilized a pre-recruited internet panel developed by Knowledge Networks, the only U.S. company that maintains an internet panel (the Knowledge Panel®) that was created using a national probability sample. The company recruited households to its Knowledge Panel® sample through a combination of random digit dialing (RDD) and address-based sampling (ABS), which involves probability sampling of addresses from the U.S. Postal Service’s Delivery Sequence File .
The Knowledge Networks internet youth panel provides high survey completion rates because of the ongoing relationship between the youth and the panel staff. To ensure adequate representation of panelists across race/ethnicity, telephone numbers from phone banks with higher concentrations of Blacks and Hispanics are over-sampled. To ensure adequate participation across levels of socioeconomic status, subjects agreeing to participate in the panel who do not have internet access are given WebTV and internet access and training for free.
Previous research has validated the alcohol data derived from adults in the Knowledge Networks internet panel. Heeren et al.  compared the results of an alcohol survey conducted through Knowledge Networks with results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). Estimates of current drinking were similar to those from NESARC, demonstrating that the Knowledge Networks panel is a less expensive, viable alternative to telephone and in-person surveys for assessing drinking behavior.
Knowledge Networks recruited 108 youth ages 16–20 from its existing internet panel to participate in the study by sending an email invitation. The invitation did not disclose that the survey was related to alcohol consumption. Those who agreed to participate were provided a secure link to access the study site.
The initial screening question asked respondents to report on how many days out of the past 30 they had consumed at least one drink of alcohol. A drink was defined as a 12-ounce can or bottle of beer; a 5-ounce glass of wine or champagne; an 8.5-ounce flavored malt beverage; an 8-ounce alcohol energy drink; a 12-ounce wine cooler; 8.5 ounces of malt liquor; 1.5 ounces of liquor (spirits or hard alcohol), whether in a mixed drink or as a shot; and 2.5 ounces of cordials or liqueurs, whether in a mixed drink, a coffee drink, or consumed on their own.
Respondents who had consumed at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days were provided with an online consent form, which described the details of the study, risks and benefits, and the procedures in place to protect the confidentiality of their responses. Participants who provided informed consent completed the internet-based questionnaire, which ascertained the alcoholic beverage brands they consumed within the past 30 days. After completion of the survey, a $25 gift was credited to the panel member’s account. The protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the Boston University Medical Center. A Certificate of Confidentiality was obtained from the National Institutes of Health to help protect the confidentiality of the panelists’ responses.
Because this was a pilot study, with funding for surveys of only about 100 subjects, we used a consecutive sampling process, enrolling the first 100 adolescents who responded to the email invitation and were found to be eligible after they completed the screening questionnaire. A total of 1,028 email invitations were sent out. It took just one week to recruit the desired sample. During that week, 360 respondents (35%) completed the screening questionnaire: 108 were qualified (i.e., had consumed at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days) and completed the survey. We exceeded the desired sample size of 100 because closing the survey does not throw out subjects who are already online.
The internet-based survey instrument was developed to assess brand-specific alcohol consumption among underage youth. The list of assessed alcohol brands was generated using two main sources. The first source was the complete list of alcohol brands measured by GfK Mediamark Research & Intelligence (GfKMRI) in its Survey of the Adult Consumer, a written survey of a representative sample of approximately 10,000 U.S. adults. GfK MRI’s survey, which ascertains the prevalence of use of various consumer products, inquires about the past six-month and past seven-day consumption of 90 beer brands and 81 wine brands and the past six-month and past 30-day consumption of 17 flavored alcoholic beverage brands and 132 spirits brands.
The second source was a list generated by TNS Media Intelligence, which is an advertising industry standard source that monitors advertising occurrences and expenditures in more than 300 national periodicals. The survey instrument included every alcohol brand advertised in the magazines during any of the years 2001–2006, except for wine and champagne. Due to the extensive number of advertised wine and champagne brands, it was sufficient and more practical to include only brands advertised in 2006.
Alcoholic energy drinks are not included in the GfK MRI list. To identify these brands, we performed internet searches and used an extensive list compiled by the National Association of Attorneys General as part of an ongoing investigation into the marketing of these beverages. Finally, we included all alcohol brands reported by participants in the preliminary pilot study that were not on our initial list.
The final survey instrument included 61 brands of beer, 81 brands of wine or champagne, 19 brands of flavored alcoholic beverages (including flavored malt beverages, alcopops, wine coolers, and malt liquor), 35 types of mixed drinks, 38 brands of alcoholic energy drinks, 14 brands of bourbon, 3 brands of brandy, 8 brands of cognac, 9 brands of gin, 19 brands of rum, 15 brands of scotch, 13 brands of tequila, 30 brands of vodka, 8 brands of whiskey, and 27 brands of cordials and liqueurs. In total, the instrument assessed 380 brands of alcoholic beverages. Brand extensions were ascertained as a single brand category if they are typically advertised together (e.g., Absolut flavored vodkas); they were ascertained separately if they are typically advertised separately (e.g., Budweiser, Bud Light).
For each category of alcohol, the respondents checked off which specific brands they had consumed during the past 30 days. If a specific brand was not listed, then respondents entered the name, giving as specific a name as possible. After identifying the brands they had consumed in the past 30 days, the respondents reported the number of days during the past 30 that they had consumed each brand and how many drinks of each brand they usually had on a day when they drank that brand.
Respondents also reported on how many days out of the past 30 they had consumed five or more drinks in a row (that is, within a couple of hours). Next, for each category of alcohol, they selected all of the brands, either alone or in combination, which they remembered drinking in the past 30 days on those occasions when they drank at that level.
The two main data analysis questions were as follows: (1) Of underage youth (ages 16–20) who consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, what proportion reported having consumed each type and each brand of alcohol? (2) Of underage youth who consumed five or more drinks in row, what proportion used each type and brand of alcohol during these drinking episodes?
Knowledge Networks applied statistical weighting adjustments to account for selection deviations and to render the sample representative of the underlying population. These weights accounted for the different selection probabilities associated with the RDD- and ABS-based samples, the oversampling of minority communities, non-response to panel recruitment, and panel attrition. Post-stratification adjustments were based on demographic distributions from the Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.
Since there has been no previously published survey of youth alcohol brand preferences, there is no true gold standard to which we can compare our findings. Instead, we can validate our findings against GfK MRI’s Survey of the Adult Consumer, a written survey of a representative sample of approximately 10,000 U.S. adults used to ascertain the prevalence of use of various consumer products, including past 30-day consumption of 132 spirits brands. Since GfK MRI defines adults as age 18 years or older, their findings on types of alcohol used can be applied as a validity check on our own findings for the 18- to 20-year-olds in our internet panel. We previously obtained data on past 30-day use of various types of liquor among 18- to 20-year-olds from the 2007 Survey of the American Consumer , and we used these data here to validate our survey findings.
The sample was slightly over-representative of males (55.6%) and somewhat more representative of older adolescents (age 16: 13.9%; age 17: 19.4%; age 18: 15.7%; age 19: 29.6%; age 20: 21.3%). By race/ethnicity, 66.7% of respondents were non-Hispanic white, 22.2% were Hispanic, 8.3% were Black, and 2.8% other race/ethnicity. The mean number of days in the past month on which alcohol was consumed was 4.9, and the median was 3. Approximately two-thirds of the respondents (65.7%) reported drinking no more than an average of once per week. The proportion of respondents who consumed five or more drinks in a row during the past 30 days was 61.1%.
It was feasible to administer the alcohol brand preference survey using Knowledge Networks’ pre-recruited internet panel. We received 108 responses within one week, with only one email solicitation and no follow-up messages to panelists who did not immediately respond. The median time it took for respondents to complete the survey was 16 minutes; 68.5% of respondents completed the survey in 20 minutes or less. Of 70 respondents who answered an open-ended question regarding whether they had any problems filling out the survey, 65 (92.8%) reported no problems at all. Only one respondent reported difficulty with the questions about alcohol brand preferences. That respondent commented that it was difficult to remember specific information about alcohol consumption that occurred 30 days ago. The other four respondents reported difficulty with questions related to drinking among relatives, which were not relevant to the present study.
Estimates of beverage category preferences among the 18- to 20-year-old respondents in our study were similar to those from the GfK MRI national survey for most of the alcoholic beverage types (Table 1). The correlation between our estimates and those from GfK MRI was high (r = 0.86, p = 0.0006), and the correlation between prevalence rank was similarly high (Spearman’s rho = 0.82, p = 0.0021). Overall, the mean absolute difference in prevalence of consumption by beverage category was 1.5%, while the mean relative difference was 29.2%.
For our survey respondents, all underage drinkers ages 16–20 years, the three most popular alcoholic beverage types (based on prevalence of any consumption in the past 30 days) were beer (consumed by 67.1%), flavored alcoholic beverages (51.9%), and vodka (43.9%) (Table 2). These were also the types most commonly consumed during episodes when respondents had five or more drinks in a row. Of respondents who had consumed alcohol during such episodes, 69.7% reported consuming beer, 51.2% reported consuming flavored alcoholic beverages, and 45.6% reported consuming vodka.
Our survey identified 160 brands of alcohol that were consumed in the past 30 days by our sample of underage drinkers. The top 10 brands consisted of three beer brands (Bud Light, Budweiser, and Coors Light), two brands of flavored alcoholic beverages (Smirnoff Malt Beverages and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Hard Iced Tea, and malt cocktails), two brands of rum (Bacardi and Captain Morgan), one brand of vodka (Smirnoff), one brand of bourbon (Jack Daniels), and one brand of tequila (Jose Cuervo) (Table 3). Only 11 brands (the 10 listed previously plus Absolut Vodka) were consumed by 10% or more of the adolescent drinkers in our sample.
The brands of alcohol used during episodes when respondents consumed five or more drinks in a row were similar to those consumed overall. The top 10 brands consumed during these episodes consisted of four beer brands (Bud Light, Budweiser, Busch, and Natural Light), two brands of flavored alcoholic beverages (Smirnoff Malt Beverages and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Hard Iced Tea, and malt cocktails), two brands of rum (Captain Morgan and Bacardi), one brand of bourbon (Jack Daniels), and one brand of vodka (Smirnoff). Only these 10 brands were consumed during episodes of drinking five or more drinks in a row by 10% or more of respondents who reported such drinking episodes.
This study has demonstrated the feasibility of comprehensively ascertaining brand-specific alcohol consumption among a national sample of underage youth using a pre-recruited internet panel. The high concordance between our results and estimates of type-specific alcoholic beverage consumption from the GfK MRI Survey of the Adult Consumer confirms the validity of our study methodology in ascertaining type-specific patterns of consumption among underage youth and therefore supports the use of this method for assessing brand-specific alcohol consumption. To the best of our knowledge, this paper is the first to comprehensively report youth alcohol brand consumption patterns among a national sample.
Although the GfK MRI Survey of the Adult Consumer does assess brand-specific alcohol consumption among a small subset of underage drinkers (those ages 18- to 20-years-old), it does not include persons below the age of 18 years and thus provides little information about alcohol consumption among the high school and junior high school populations. In addition, the GfK MRI results are not publicly available or publicly reported.
The present research is limited because of the pilot study’s small sample size and the relatively low precision of our brand consumption prevalence estimates. Even so, the study results support several important conclusions about brand-specific alcohol consumption among underage youth. First, our findings provide preliminary evidence that, while the spectrum of alcohol brands consumed is wide, the number of popular alcohol brands among underage youth is limited. Only 11 brands were consumed in the past 30 days by 10% or more of sample respondents. During episodes of drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in a row, only 10 brands were consumed by 10% or more of respondents reporting such episodes. If confirmed in a larger sample, this apparent concentration of alcohol brand preferences suggests that it may be feasible for national surveys to ascertain youth alcohol brand preferences quickly and efficiently, something that was not previously thought possible.
Second, there is a small concentration of preferred brands within the alcoholic beverage categories that are widely popular among youth drinkers. For example, although respondents reported drinking 37 different beer brands, only three beer brands (Bud Light, Budweiser, and Coors Light) were consumed by at least 10% of respondents. Similarly, only two brands of rum (Bacardi and Captain Morgan), two brands of vodka (Smirnoff and Absolut), and one brand of tequila (Jose Cuervo) was consumed by at least 10% of the drinkers in our sample.
Third, we found that flavored alcoholic beverages are extremely popular among underage drinkers, with more than half reporting consumption of this type of alcoholic beverage during the past month. This is a striking finding, since this type of alcoholic beverage makes up only 2% of the total market . This finding demonstrates an important benefit of improved surveillance of the types and brands of alcohol consumed by underage youths: it may point attention to specific brands or beverage categories that are disproportionately popular among youth.
An advantage of this study was that unlike previous surveys, our methodology did not rely upon youth to accurately classify the types of alcoholic beverages that they consume. Our survey specifically assessed consumption of each of the 380 brands. We therefore believe that this method of ascertaining alcohol consumption patterns by type of alcohol may be the most accurate to date, and will enable more accurate studies of the total volume of alcohol consumed by youth drinkers .
There are two major limitations of this study. First, the small sample size resulted in wide confidence intervals around the point estimates for brand-specific alcohol consumption. Second, because we used consecutive sampling, only allowing the first 100 respondents to participate in the survey, the sample is not a representative one. There may be factors – such as socioeconomic status, geographic location, or college attendance and employment status – which may be related to both a youth’s likelihood of responding to the survey and his or her alcoholic brand preferences. Therefore, the specific estimates of brand-specific consumption should be interpreted with caution and viewed only as preliminary estimates.
Despite these limitations, the study reveals that alcohol consumption among older adolescents is concentrated around a limited number of highly popular brands. Larger studies that allow these brands to be definitively identified and then examine youth exposure to advertising for these brands should be a priority, as this research would provide strong evidence as to whether alcohol advertising affects youth drinking behavior. The present study therefore supports the need for a large, national survey of youth alcohol brand preferences and suggests that such a study both is feasible and would provide valid alcohol consumption data.
This study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Center Grant P60AA1375905S1.