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Alcohol in Popular Culture

Popular culture has a significant influence over people’s behaviors and decision-making processes, including when it comes to alcohol. According to Social Learning Theory, people learn from personal experiences and are influenced by behavior that they witness or are exposed to in other formats, such as movies, television, music, social media, magazines, and advertisements. This gives alcohol brands multiple popular culture mediums to advertise their products and suggest drinking behaviors to potential consumers, particularly younger audiences.

Alcohol in Music

In recent years, there has been an emergence of concern regarding subject matter involving drugs and alcohol in music and other forms of popular culture. A study out of Northwestern University found that 22.4% of songs on the Billboard’s Hot 100 list mentioned alcohol. Another study by Boston University and Johns Hopkins University looked at Billboard’s listings of the most popular songs from 2009-2011. They identified 720 songs, with 167 (23.2%) of them mentioning alcohol. Themes of alcohol use were most apparent in rap, hip-hop, and R&B music. These genres accounted for 37.7% of the songs that mentioned alcohol, most frequently referencing tequila, vodka, cognac and champagne. Country music was the second most alcohol-prevalent genre, with 21.8% of the mentions being found in country songs. Third was pop music, which accounted for 14.9% of the mentions. Country and pop music typically referenced whiskey and beer. Contrarily, none of the rock music examined in the study contained any references to alcohol.

Teens Are Particularly Susceptible To The Heavy Exposure Of Alcohol In MusicThis trend has been a subject of scrutiny by mental health professionals, substance abuse experts, and consumers alike. People learn behaviors from personal experiences and are influenced by what they are exposed to in popular media. Music is no exception. These studies find that alcohol consumption and glorification is a common theme in music. Additionally, alcoholic themes are overwhelmingly presented in a positive light. Even when the events being described in the lyrics are objectively unhealthy, artists rarely present the negative consequences associated with alcohol use or abuse. Numerous studies and psychological theories, such as Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, support the notion that people are being encouraged to consume alcohol in excessive amounts from exposure to these songs.

Music and Underage Drinking

Teenagers and young adults are particularly susceptible to these influences, as they are most frequently exposed to pop music. Many parents have become concerned about their children learning about and looking up to the behavior described in these types of songs. There are restrictions on what age groups can listen to explicit music; however, music is so accessible online that even diligent parents struggle to keep children from listening to this content.

Early onset alcohol use is a significant concern and can cause a variety of negative physical and psychological outcomes. Drinking during adolescence can stunt the development of a teenager’s brain and cause permanent damage. It also increases their chance of developing an addiction by the time they enter early adulthood. Other health risks, like heart disease, mental illness, and cancer have been linked to consuming alcohol at an earlier age as well.

Alcohol in Television

In the past decade, alcohol consumption has become increasingly common on television, as is the case with other forms of popular culture. Lace Strate, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, attributes this trend to strategic product placement by brands. Due to policies and regulations set by all major television networks, advertisers cannot show actors consuming alcohol during commercials. Instead, companies have sought out ways to advertise their products on television shows. Series like The Good Wife and How I Met Your Mother frequently depict fictional characters consuming alcohol. Other shows, such as Comedy Central’s Drunk History, use alcohol consumption as its main attraction, showing intoxication as harmless and entertaining.

Substance use is most commonly depicted by the leading characters in sitcoms and soap operas. Additionally, alcohol brands will typically feature models, sport stars, and other celebrities that tend to be seen as successful in their broadcasted commercials. This association increases the social acceptance of substance use and potentially foster initial and continued use in young people.

Television and Underage Drinking

Recently, a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that there is a significant correlation between ‘problematic drinking’ at a young age and use of product and brand placement in popular TV shows. Researchers identified 10 popular television shows that were considered friendly for children to view. On average, each episode showed more than two alcohol brand placements, with some episodes exceeding 13 brand placements. Researchers then questioned 2,600 adolescents and young adults (ages 15-20) about their TV viewing habits as well as their drinking preferences. They found that those who reported watching more TV with alcohol-related content were more likely to indulge in problematic drinking behaviors, such as drinking underage and binge drinking.

Parents should be aware that it is highly likely their children will be exposed to alcohol brand placements if they watch TV shows rated TV-PG or higher, and that this could affect their drinking behavior. Given the significant health implications of underage drinking, the Federal Trade Commission needs to place more emphasis on monitoring and limiting alcohol brand placement of alcohol in media.

Dr. Joy Gabrielli, PhD, Clinical Child Psychologist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Dartmouth College & Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

Another study, funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health, gathered similar findings. Data showed that when teenagers watch more television, they are more to view binge drinking fun and harmless. These studies, and numerous others like them, indicate that alcohol brands are targeting increasingly younger audiences. This has caused some to call upon the Federal Trade Commission to place more emphasis on monitoring and limiting alcohol brand placement of alcohol in media, especially in media that is frequently presented to or targeting a younger audience.

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Alcohol in Movies

There is a large body of research that shows that alcohol brand placements have been increasing in movies each year, particularly in child-rated movies. According to one such study, in the past two decades alcohol marketing exposure through movies has nearly doubled. While it is an effective marketing method, many experts are concerned that it has a correlative relationship with an increase in underage and unhealthy drinking habits.

Children and young people look to movie stars as role models. For alcohol companies, when a favorite star uses a certain brand of alcohol, that brand gets linked to all the characteristics young admirers see in their movie idol. That’s why it’s no surprise that the brands commonly shown in movies are the most highly advertised brands, and the same brands underage drinkers tend to drink.

Dr. James Sargent, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Community and Family Medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine

One study identified 534 films, finding that more than half of them contained at least one alcohol brand appearance. It also found that 19.2% of G- or PG- rated movies contained specific alcohol brand placements. Another study looked at the 100 top-grossing movies in the U.S. between 1996-2015 to determine trends in alcohol brand placements in the past two decades. They found that alcohol brand placements increased annually by an average of 5% and increased 92% overall. General alcohol use was shown in 87% of all movies, while specific brands only appeared in 44%.  In movies rated for children, G- or PG-, characters were shown drinking alcohol in 85% of all top movies. Alcohol brands appeared in 41%.

Furthermore, there is research that shows that the brands most frequently appearing in these movies are the favorite, most commonly used brands of those drinking under age.

Alcohol in Politics

Alcohol has often been used as a tool amongst politicians to make themselves seem more relatable and therefore empathetic to the needs of voters. The sentiment of ‘I want a President I can drink a beer with’ has resonated with voters since the founding of the United States. Now it is a common mindset amongst citizens of most modern democracies. According to voters and polling data, the makings of a good Commander in Chief is found in someone thought to be most like a regular, beer-drinking guy–however ambiguous and subjective that statement may be.

Whether it’s the idea of going to frat parties with George W. Bush back in the day, watching Elizabeth Warren drink a beer on New Year’s Eve on Instagram, or Barack Obama releasing his White House home brew recipe “so that it may be enjoyed by all,” presidential hopefuls and other political leaders world-wide have a history that is intertwined with a culture of drinking.

The History of American Politics and Alcohol

In America specifically, there is a long history about the relationship between the President and alcohol. It begins with George Washington himself, who was an avid fan of beer and brewing. In 1757, he wrote down his recipe for “Small Beer” on the back of his notebook. The recipe was recovered and published by the New York Public Library and it is still brewed today. Thomas Jefferson was a notorious fan of wine, having served as the minister to France during the Revolutionary War. Fourth President, James Madison loved American beer so much that he attempted to create a National Brewery. This would include the installation of a Secretary of Beer position, all to protect the young brewing culture in America.

Politicians Often Use Alcohol As A Way To Connect With VotersFor years this tradition continued. Presidents often hosted booze-filled events or went out and enjoyed a beer with supporters on the campaign trail.  However, in the late 1800s this began to change as the temperance movement began gaining popularity. Presidents began to hide their consumption and publicly take a stance against alcohol. Rutherford B. Hayes, elected in 1876, banned all alcohol, smoking, and profanity in the White House. In 1919, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act. This established a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Regardless, the next President, Warren Harding, was known to hold bi weekly, booze-filled poker nights in the White House.

On March 12, 1933, when the Great Depression was devastating millions of Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously announced, “I think this would be a good time for beer,” bringing the Prohibition Era to an end. From then on, the love story between American and alcohol was able to continue. There was a resurgence of Presidents very publicly embracing alcohol. First, FDR signed the Beer-Wine Revenue Act which allowed 3.2 percent beer and wine. Then he helped pass the 21st Amendment that once again made it legal to drink.

Years later, Jimmy Carter, signed HR 1337, which legalized home-brewing. Ronald Reagan, a proud Irish-American, was so fond of a particular Irish pub that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library built a replica of it. George W. Bush was considered the embodiment of ‘a president people would like to have a beer with,’ despite the fact he was sober during his time in the Oval Office. Still, he frequently referenced his more wild, beer drinking days and even opened up about his possible alcohol use disorder. All of this led to Barack Obama’s White House home brew recipes, House Honey Ale and a House Honey Porter. Using honey from the White House’s South Lawn bee hive, the recipe was released to the public in 2012 during his second campaign for president.

International Politics and the Diplomacy of Alcohol

Alcohol is not just used to help politicians domestically, it also has been used as an opportunity to aid in international matters of diplomacy. Bill Clinton was known to take advantage of these opportunities. He often took part in drinking related photo-ops to help with his image abroad. While helping negotiate peace in Northern Ireland, he visited a pub in Dublin and posed for cameras with a Guinness. At the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, he visited the Malt House pub for a pint of Greenalls. These instances do help create the ‘just your average Joe’ image back home. However, it also makes you seem approachable and more friendly during international negotiations-no matter where your home country is.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blaire, took French president, Jacques Chirac, to the County Pub in Aycliffe in County Durham before a summit in Nice. Vladimir Putin then took Blair out to see the city of Moscow, offering Vodka samplings to him and his press secretary. Even in Arab nations where alcohol is illegal, politicians and diplomats will often offer visiting diplomats and leaders drinks. During summits and international meetings, hotel bars are often where conversations about deals and negotiations first take place. Offering another party an expensive drink is just one way that the generous hospitality of the diplomatic world is displayed. Sometimes this is counter-productive, distracting leaders and preventing and conclusions from being made as conversations are not efficient nor completely on topic.

Alcohol in Social Media

Alcohol has a large presence on social media, leaving its primarily young users highly susceptible to advertisements and content intended for an older audience. Underage teenagers are subsequently encouraged to consume alcohol and exposed to other, often unhealthy, drinking habits. There are two main ways that alcohol related content is brought to users; advertisements and user-generated content.  On its own, social media has been criticized due to its ability to influence user’s behaviors, mental health, and decision making. The effects of social media are still being studied and contested today. However, it’s apparent that the promotion of alcohol use on social media leads to unhealthy drinking habits.

Social Media and Alcohol Advertising

Social media portrayals of alcohol brands are very effective marketing tools. This is because of the unique, interactive element with social media that allows brands to build relationships with their consumers. User can ‘like’ and ‘follow’ brands, and then get updates about promotions and invites to their events. Some brands offer giveaways or reward points if you follow their social media. This gives consumers the chance to get brand merchandise or tickets to sporting events and concerts. Additionally, restaurants use social media to promote drink specials and happy hours, while Facebook users can organize events on the website that make parties, alcohol, and drugs easily accessible. Other companies will pay ‘social media influencers,’ people with a large social media following, and sponsor a post with them advertising their product.

Alcohol Has A Large Presence On Social Media, Which Can Encourage Young People To Engage In Underage DrinkingThese types of advertisements can work in several ways. First, they provide potential consumers with information about their products and promotions. Second, they prey on social media user’s innate desire to be like those that they follow. FOMO, fear of missing out, has become a common phrase that expresses the anxiety of not being fun, interesting, or attractive enough.

This is typically as a result of going on social media and seeing friends and celebrities posting about vacations and parties. This occurs when someone is looking at posts made by friends or the manufactured and photoshopped posts influencers and models with thousands of followers. Lastly, when you see someone frequently exhibiting a certain type of behavior-even on social media-you tend to mimic that behavior.

One study out of Michigan State University exposed 121 participants to a series of ads on Facebook. One a group was shown beer advertisements and promotions while a control group was shown water bottle ads. They were then given a choice between receiving a gift card for a coffee shop or a bar as compensation for their participation in the study. Those exposed to the alcohol advertisements were significantly more likely to pick the bar than those in the control group. 73% percent of those who saw the beer ads took the gift card for the bar. Only 55% of those who saw water ads chose it.

Social Media and Underage Drinking

According to a national survey conducted by CASA Columbia, sponsored by Columbia University, teenagers ages 12-17 who spend time on social media are at an increased risk of smoking, drinking, and drug use. Compared to teens who spent no time on social media, teens that do were three times more likely to use alcohol. They are also more than twice as likely to be able to obtain alcohol in a day or less. Of the teens surveyed, 40% have seen photos of people unconscious, drunk, or using drugs on social media platforms. These are all considered portrayals of ‘risky behaviors.’

According to The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, teens who share one risky behavior online, such as substance use, are more likely to display other risky behaviors such as promiscuity, drinking, and drug use. Older adolescents who have posts that suggest or display unhealthy drinking habits are more likely to have a higher score on a ‘problem-drinking’ evaluation. Restrictions exist on many websites to prevent underage exposure to alcohol advertisings or other explicit content. However, it is easy to lie about your age on these platforms or to be exposed to alcohol advertisements in other settings.

The Glorification of Alcohol in Popular Culture

In all of these categories, one can see the glorification or idolization of alcohol in popular culture. Often, it’s real people, like politicians or celebrities who know associating themselves with alcohol helps them get approval and recognition. There is a common narrative that with the right drink you can become ‘just one of the guys’ or even the ‘most interesting man on Earth.’ This works the other way around too. When consumers see professional models on their social media feed advertising a new alcoholic seltzer, the message received is ‘you can be just as beautiful and fit as me if you drink this.’ In television, most alcohol portrayals are in fictional programs. This allows brands and show writers to create worlds where alcohol consumption is associated with glamorous and affluent life-styles. In all of these media forms, the potentially negative consequences of alcohol consumption are not shown.

This is, of course, not realistic. However, the real-world implications of this kind of marketing in popular culture has led to numerous cases of underage drinking and unhealthy alcohol consumption trends.

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