This is the first study to estimate exposure to movie alcohol use and brand appearances in a representative national sample of adolescents. Of the movies in our sample, 83% contained alcohol use and 52% contained at least one alcohol brand appearance. Movies rated PG13 contained as much alcohol use and as many brand appearances as R-rated movies. However, because U.S. adolescents are more likely to view PG13 movies than R movies, PG13 movies accounted for a greater proportion of alcohol exposure. Also, though G/PG movies contained significantly less alcohol use than PG13 and R movies, over half of the G and PG movies (which are specifically marketed to children and young adolescents) portrayed alcohol use and almost one in five featured an identifiable alcohol brand. The results of the current content analysis are consistent with our findings from a sample of 601 popular movies released between 1988 and 1999(20
) and are largely consistent with those of previous researchers using older, smaller, or more restricted media samples. These include G-rated films from 1937 through 2000 (47% showed alcohol use),(37
) 200 top video rentals in 1996 and 1997 (93% contained alcohol, 85% contained actors using alcohol, and 9% showed characters under 18 using alcohol),(25
) 200 top grossing movies from 1983 to 2003 (32% depicted alcohol intoxication),(38
) and 43 movies from 1999-2001 featuring teens as central characters (40% of whom used alcohol).(24
) Importantly, characteristics of the viewers had an impact on their exposure to alcohol-related content in movies. Unsurprisingly, older adolescents had more exposure. However, we also found that exposure to alcohol depictions in R-rated movies was disproportionately high among boys, minority youth, and youth living in low-income families. This is consistent with prior research demonstrating, for example, that African American young people are exposed to higher levels of alcohol advertising in print media than are their peers.(35
We estimated that 10-14 year olds in the U.S. were exposed to over 5 billion gross impressions of alcohol brands from this sample of movies. How does this compare to the reach of traditional alcohol advertising? A pitch-side advertising board shown once during the broadcast of the 2006 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup,(39
) would have generated over 600 million impressions to in-home viewers worldwide. In the U.S., a Bud Light
advertisement shown during the 2007 Super Bowl was seen by 97.7 million people over age 2 (reported cost of the ad: US$2.6 million).(40
) For the year 2002, exposure to alcohol ads on television was estimated at an average of 253.5 ads per person (among 12-20 year olds in the U.S.);(41
) note that this estimate includes older adolescents, repeated viewing of the same advertisement, and all television programming.
Product placement occurs when a product manufacturer (or marketer) pays the film producer (or other agent) to depict a brand in the movie. For example, the auto firm Aston Martin paid the makers of the film “Die Another Day” to ensure that lead character James Bond would drive an Aston Martin—a reported $70 million was paid by firms who placed products in that film alone.(42
) We are unable to distinguish between brand appearances and product placements by identifying which brand appearances were paid for by manufacturers and which were not, and thus cannot draw conclusions regarding advertising strategies or expenditures. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) noted in 1999(43
) that some companies in the alcoholic beverage industry have denied requests to place alcohol products in films portraying underage drinking, but that alcohol products have nevertheless appeared in PG and PG13 films. In this same report, the FTC recommended that alcohol product placement be restricted to R and NC17 rated movies. The current results reveal that alcohol products continued to appear in films rated G, PG, and PG13 through 2003, and that young adolescents were exposed to these brand images.
We content analyzed and surveyed respondents about movies released between 1998 and 2003, and cannot estimate exposure to alcohol content in movies outside this time period. Therefore, we have not measured adolescents’ total lifetime exposure to alcohol content in movies; rather, we have estimated their lifetime exposure to depictions of alcohol use and alcohol brands in this sample of over 500 popular contemporary movies. Also, we did not account for repeated viewing of movies (and any associated alcohol content). Therefore we have likely underestimated the true extent of exposure overall and probably also for this sample of movies. Nevertheless, our study demonstrates that youth are indeed being exposed to movie depictions of alcohol use and brand appearances and that much of the exposure comes from movies rated in the U.S. as suitable for adolescents. Our study is representative of adolescents in the U.S.; it is unclear whether the results will generalize to youth in other countries. American movies are distributed and are popular worldwide, but we cannot speak to levels of exposure in other populations where viewing rates may be different and where locally-produced films may contain different amounts of alcohol use and brand appearances. Also, film rating systems differ across jurisdictions; these differences may result in different patterns of exposure to movie depictions of alcohol use.
Given that alcohol-related content is prevalent in current popular movies and youth are being exposed to this content, movies may serve as a source of information regarding the prevalence, acceptability, and function of alcohol in social life. Our study did not assess the context of the alcohol depictions (e.g., if the drinkers are rewarded for their drinking) or adolescents’ interpretations of these depictions. We did evaluate whether movies included depictions of alcohol intoxication and found that this occurs in a sizable minority of films. We look forward to future research that carefully examines audience interpretations of media alcohol use and their implications for alcohol use behavior. Recent research has found an association between exposure to movie alcohol use and alcohol initiation in a sample of adolescents from Northern New England.(20
) Further research is needed to establish whether the effect replicates in representative samples of adolescents worldwide, whether the effect is causal, and what psychosocial processes underlie any causal effect. In the interim, practitioners may wish to alert parents that PG13 movies contain as much alcohol-related content as R movies, in order that they might make informed parenting decisions regarding media.