Study finds no support for claims that alcohol industry targets youth

A Penn State study finds no economic evidence that the alcohol beverage industry targets youth in its magazine ads, as alleged by critics.

"Results from analyzing magazine characteristics and readership demographics show significant effects for advertisement price, audience size and adult demographics in magazine alcohol ads, but fail to support claims of targeting youth," said study author Jon Nelson, professor emeritus of economics at

Penn State University. His findings are published in the July issue of Contemporary Economic Policy.

In 2003, the alcohol beverage industry spent more than $1.6 billion on advertising including $394 million on ads in magazines. Critics allege that the activities target teens and contribute to social problems associated with underage alcohol drinking.

Proposals by regulatory and advocacy groups range from a complete ban on alcohol advertising to stricter limits on ads in media outlets with a very high exposure to youth.

Dr. Nelson reviewed alcohol ads in 28 magazines in 2001-2003 and analyzed them by demographics: the percentage of youth readers, adult median age, adult median real income, and percentage of adult male readers, and by magazine characteristics: circulation, single copy sales, content category, annual number of issues, and advertisement cost per thousand readers.

Alcohol advertising includes beer, wine and spirits. For 2001-2003, the 28 magazines in the study contained a total of 3,675 alcohol ads, including 652 beer ads, 118 wine ads, and 2,905 distilled spirits ads.

Titles include: Better Homes and Gardens, Car and Driver, ESPN The Magazine, Glamour, People, Newsweek, Time, Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated, Spin, Shape, Self and Vogue. All of the sampled magazines accept alcohol ads. Some popular youth-oriented magazines such as Seventeen or YM that do not accept alcohol ads were not included in the study.

For 14 of the 28 magazines, the percentage of youth readers equals or exceeds 20 percent. Four magazines in the study are among the most widely read magazines among teens: People Weekly, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Vibe.

"Beer advertisers favor magazines with more young adults, male readers and larger adult audiences, but not teens," said Dr. Nelson. "Spirits producers prefer magazines with more young adults, male readers and larger adult audiences but not teens; they also favor magazines with lower costs per advertisement."

"In terms of content, automobile magazines have the highest average percentage of youth readership, although the number of alcohol ads in this category is quite small. Entertainment and music magazines have the second highest percentage of youth readers, the lowest mean adult age and a large number of alcohol ads," he added.

However, the study notes that the young adult population (ages 21-34) is 50 percent larger than the underage youth population (ages 12-20). The alcohol industry targets young adults through magazine ads because young adults drink more alcohol than older adults and have not yet established brand loyalties.

Nelson's analysis found that alcohol advertisers have the strongest preference for men's style and sports magazines, followed by entertainment and music magazines. Advertising decisions are influenced more by the size of the adult audience and the price charged for an ad placement, rather than the size of the youth readership.

"The percentage of youth readers is not significant in any of the economic regressions, regardless of the model," Nelson adds. "Policymakers would be well advised to turn their attention to other aspects of youth drinking behaviors, rather than decisions made in the market for advertising space."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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