A Brief History Of Alcohol And Its Depiction In Movies

Our frequent depiction of alcohol in movies stems from a long and involved history between our species and this substance. For the better part of 10,000 years, different humans across the globe have created and refined their own versions of alcohol. The earliest definitive evidence of intentional, widespread alcohol brewing comes from China and its rice wine dating back to 7000 BC. Many mind-altering substances have been part of human consumption for thousands of years, but none have enjoyed the level of popularity of alcohol.

A review of popular art forms throughout history reinforces the importance of alcohol in human culture. Ancient Egyptians created detailed art featuring the brewing and consumption of beer and wine demonstrating its place in their popular culture. Romans also portrayed the use of alcohol and the drunkenness it caused in leisure settings like banquets and orgies. Some art, like Greek and Christian paintings, features alcohol almost exclusively in a holy or official capacity. No matter the nature of the depiction, examples of alcohol expressed through popular art media can be found throughout thousands of years of human history, leading up to the present.

In the early 20th century, when movies became a legitimate means of entertainment, they were seen by some as an alternative to drinking. The temperance movement during prohibition thought this new, popular entertainment option would keep people out of speakeasies and away from drinking. Some early movies reflected this sentiment, playing out the stories of tragic alcohol abuse and its effects, but as time moved on, alcohol in movies became commonplace.

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Alcohol In Modern Films

Relative to ancient examples, alcohol in media has exploded in recent history for several reasons. A larger percent of the population in modern civilizations are able to enjoy alcohol and the media it’s featured in recreationally. In 2017, Stratistics MRC (a global marketing research company) estimated the Global Alcoholic beverages market to be worth about $1,324 billion. This enormous demand for alcohol isn’t necessarily unexpected considering humanity’s historical love of booze, but it means that the nature of alcohol depictions has largely changed.

A study performed in 1996 and again in 2017 found a monumental increase in the depiction of alcohol brands in the top 100 films of the year. The first pass found 140 depictions of branded alcohol and 20 years later, that number has jumped to 282, a 96% increase. The study accounted for film rating and found that PG and G films both frequently featured branded alcohol.

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Incidental Alcohol Consumption And Advertising In Movies

Directors and writers may meticulously plan and shoot every scene, but not all alcohol in movies serves as the focus of the film. For the purpose of this description, incidental alcohol consumption refers to movies that feature characters drinking or otherwise interacting with alcohol, without alcohol being the focus of the movie. Dartmouth researchers found that 80% of movies feature some degree of incidental alcohol consumption. This type of drinking exposure, while it may seem harmless, serves as a means of advertising for alcohol brands.

Researchers from the previously mentioned study note that brands feel safe being featured in movies using product placement, a form of native advertisements. Native advertising describes a type of ad that intentionally mimics the content it’s in to avoid breaking immersion. Product placement functions as a covert advertisement, not drawing undue attention to itself, but still representing the brand in a movie. A character drinking a beer at the bar during a scene could be considered advertising if the label of the can is clear and visible. If they were to pick up the can and monologue an endorsement that has nothing to do with the story, that would not be a native advertisement.

Seeing how alcohol plays a common role in everyday life for many people, a branded label on a bottle of beer in a movie doesn’t stick out. Sitting through a specific ad before the movie draws attention to the alcohol and subjects it to the regulations commercial advertisements need to obey. After a deluge of lawsuits, tobacco companies agreed to stop commercial advertisements and product placements altogether, and movies featuring tobacco products fell by half the following year. Alcohol brands managed to avoid the retribution of people harmed by their product but took the lesson and invested more heavily in less conspicuous product placement advertising. The damage alcohol causes also finds its way into movies, but these films may be less advertiser friendly.

Alcoholism In Movies

The cultural ubiquity of alcohol unavoidably has an impact on alcohol abuse. Alcoholism, like many addictions, exacts a heavy price suffering from it and can ultimately result in their death. Nearly every genre of movie has addressed the effects of alcoholism through each of their specific lenses. This purposeful examination of the negative side of alcohol usually negates any advertising effects caused by incidental alcohol consumption. The concern these movies show for alcoholism mirrors the concerns that researchers have for the possible effects of rampant alcohol depiction in film.

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Effects Of Alcohol Exposure In Movies

Research from 2012 exposes some worrisome patterns in alcohol use among teens. A study of 6,500 10 to 14-year-olds found that those who more regularly watched movies featuring alcohol consumption were twice as likely to drink and three times as likely to binge drink than those who didn’t watch as many movies with drinking. The study references the learn-by-example nature that younger people often abide by through their development. The frequent appearance of alcohol consumption in movies normalizes it and can even portray it as desirable and worth doing, which is certainly not the case for kids between 10 and 14.


Likelihood to drink.


Likelihood to binge drink.

The comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising in the year 1970 led to a significant decrease in the use of tobacco products in the US. Researchers believe that, if the goal is to reduce teen drinking, restricting the display of alcohol in movies may be an effective move. The nearly unmitigated ability for brands to market through product placement in movies allows them direct access to young teens who could develop a drinking habit before their bodies can manage the stress. Currently, 12-20-year-olds consume 11% of the alcohol in the US. Debates about the drinking age rage on, but general scientific consensus agrees that young teens shouldn’t be drinking frequently, if at all. While incidental drinking may function as a product placement opportunity, some movies focus directly on the issues with drinking and alcohol’s place in our culture.

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