A content analytic study of alcohol advertisements in popular magazines

Studying influences of underage drinking in the United States: a content analytic study of alcohol advertisements in popular magazines

Brady C. Stubblefield


Each year underage consumers spend billions of dollars on alcoholic beverages. The results of underage drinking have both monetary and societal repercussion. While many factors contribute to underage drinking, unintentional marketing to underage consumers by companies within the alcoholic beverage industry might be at least partially responsible. Magazines are a popular and prevalent medium through which these companies advertise, to legal consumers and underage consumers alike. The study provides insights into how some print advertisements can be perceived as targeting underage consumers.


There has been a tremendous amount of controversy in the last 15 years regarding attempts by the tobacco industry to target underage smokers. This is evident by the rise of anti-smoking campaigns such as the “Truth” campaign. While all of this criticism has been directed towards the tobacco industry, it seems as though similar underage targeting by the alcoholic beverage industry has been overlooked. While the effects of underage smoking have been widely publicized, equally shocking results of underage drinking have received much less attention. In fact, if the average cost of alcohol use by youth was divided up amongst every man, woman, and child in the U.S., it would roughly equal $216.22 for each person (Miller, 1999). Though these economic costs are significant, the social costs of underage drinking are equally alarming. It was believed that the brain was fully developed between the ages of 16 and 17, but current research has shown that “significant development” of the brain occurs until the age of 21 (Ballie, 2001). Drinking alcohol before the age of 21 can therefore hinder this brain development (Ballie, 2001). Given that 7.2 million people between the ages of 12 and 17 drank alcohol at least once in 1998, this poses a serious mental health risk (SAMHSA, 1999). In addition to damaging the minds of teens, underage drinking has also plays a significant role in the deaths of adolescents. The leading causes of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 are suicides, homicides, and automobile crashes, and alcohol is a leading factor in these causes (Focus Adolescent Services, 2000). This paper aims to explore the targeting of underage consumers by the alcoholic beverage industry, specifically through the use of advertisements in popular magazines. The study will investigate the prevalence of content aimed at, or appealing to, underage consumers in alcoholic beverage advertisements.


The alcoholic beverage industry is enormous. In 1999, it is estimated that $116.2 billion was spent on alcohol (The Dominion Post, 2003). Obviously this is of substantial benefit to the U.S. economy. Some people have criticized the alcoholic beverage industry based on claims that underage drinking accounts for a substantial portion of their sales. In 1999, underage drinking accounted for 19.7% of alcoholic beverage sales, valued at $22.5 billion in sales (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2003). The problem of underage drinking is not one that is limited to people in their late teens. In fact, the average age that an underage drinker starts to consume alcohol is around 13 (Tomlinson, 2003). It is estimated that around 10.7 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 consume alcoholic beverages (Baldor, 2003). The high occurrence of underage drinking has led to some serious consequences. Studies have shown that of youths involved in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, 70% involved underage drinking drivers (Baldor, 2003). Some additional negative results of underage drinking include educational failure, violence, auto accidents, and sexual assault, which result in an “annual tab” of $53 billion (Lawton and Wilke, 2003). Much effort has been expended into determining the causes of underage consumption. One area that has received a lot of criticism is “alcopops”. “Alcopops” are the new and sweet malt beverages being released, which include Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and Doc Otis’ Hard Lemonade (Alcohol Policies Project, 2001). Numerous people have claimed that these “alcopops” target underage drinkers by looking and tasting like soft drinks (Melillo, 2002). Some have even claimed that the alcoholic beverage industry intentionally uses the confusion between “alcopops” and soft drinks in order to attract new, underage consumers (Berman, 2004). Others fear that these “alcopops” serve as “gateway drinks”, claiming that the taste of lagers and ciders drove off younger consumers, but these new “alcopops” are much easier to drink (Curtis, 1997). Research has supported many of these claims. In fact, an Alcohol Policies Project study on “alcopops” determined that teens are twice as likely to have tried “alcopops” than adults and three times more likely than adults to be aware of “alcopops”(Alcohol Policies Project, 2001). This same study determined that 51% of teens between the ages of 17 and 18 and 35% of teens between the ages of 14 and 16 have tried “alcopops”.

As with any large industry, advertising plays an important role in the alcoholic beverage industry. In 2001, an estimated 219,000 alcohol commercials were shown on television alone (Tomlinson, 2003). Television is just one medium through which the alcohol industry advertises. Also used are radio and magazines (Tomlinson, 2003). The difficulty that alcoholic beverage companies face is trying to target 21 year-olds with their advertisements without targeting anybody under 21 years of age (Bess, 2003). The alcoholic beverage industry has attempted to minimize the influence of their advertisements on underage consumers by setting guidelines for advertising. In September 2003, the Beer Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States made their guidelines stricter by stating that no more than 30% of the audience of alcohol ads can be under the legal drinking age, a change from the earlier guideline of 50% (King, 2004). Despite these stricter guidelines, many people still feel as though the alcoholic beverage industry is advertising specifically towards underage consumers. A recent lawsuit filed by David Boies III against alcohol purveyors claimed that alcohol companies advertise in magazines such as Stuff and Spin, which are mostly read by young people, they use cartoon characters in their ads, use product placement in PG and PG-13 movies, and that their ads contain things associated with “spring break” and other college activities (Lawton and Wilke, 2003). A different California lawsuit claimed that alcohol companies are targeting youth by advertising on media that is “heavily trafficked by underage consumers” and use promotions that are appealing to a “primarily underage market” (Berman, 2004). A study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth presented findings that justify these criticisms. Alcohol ads in magazines have not gone unnoticed, and they too have received scrutiny. In fact, a recent lawsuit directed criticism towards the alcoholic beverage industry for advertising in magazine with teenage readership of around 41% and for having advertisement that “have sexual and sophomoric overtones that are appealing to teenagers” (Berman, 2004). Despite these criticisms toward alcohol advertisements in magazines, little research has been done relating to the content of these magazine ads. This paper, by exploring the content of multiple alcohol ads shown in different magazines, will fill this gap in the current research.


Research conducted prior to this study has suggested that alcoholic beverage ads in magazines contain “sophomoric” and “sexual” content that is appealing to people under the legal drinking age (Berman, 2004). It has also been determined that in 1999, underage drinkers accounted for $22.5 billion in sales (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2003). This substantial amount of sales revenue could provide sufficient motivation for companies to target these underage drinkers. This study will explore if alcoholic beverage ads in popular magazines such as Maxim, Stuff, and FHM, contain content that is directed towards and/or appealing to underage consumers.


Content analysis is a valid research method for making inferences related to “intentions, attitudes, and values of individuals by identifying specified characteristics in textual messages” (Morris, 1994). This study’s theme is related to how advertisements appeal to, and are directed at, consumers under the age of 21, and will use content analysis to study it. The following is a list of criteria, created subjectively, that will be used to determine whether the content involved in magazine advertisements is directed at, or appealing to, consumers under the age of 21.

Criterion #1. Use of cartoons. Abbreviation : –(Cartoon)

Criterion #2. Situations reserved for, or involving, people between the ages of 12 and 20. (Situations)

Criterion #3. Product endorsers that are normally involved in movies or television shows aimed at an audience between the ages of 12 to 20. (Endorsers)

Criterion #4. Content that promotes rebellion against parental authority. (Rebellion)

Criterion #5. Content involving popular musicians or popular bands. (Popular Music)

Criterion #6. Content involving people that appear to be under the age of 21.(Underage Model)

Criterion #7. Situations resembling parties where attending members appear to be under 21 years of age and parental supervision is lacking. (Parties)

Criterion #8. Content containing beer that is either labeled in a fashion similar to soda or in a situation where somebody would find soda. (Soda)

Criterion #9. Any content directly related to high school, including, but not limited to, tests, fundraisers, high school sports and other extra-curricular activities, school dances, and school projects. (High School)

The sample used in this study includes the following magazines: Maxim (December 03, January 04, February 04, March 04, April 04, May 04), Stuff (February 04, March 04, April 04), FHM (March 04, April 04, May 04), and Men’s Fitness (January 04, February 04, March 04, April 04). These magazines were chosen for this study based on their popularity amongst consumers under the age of 21. Every magazine contained in the sample was examined and every advertisement related to hard alcohol, beer, or malt liquors was removed. These advertisements were then examined using the aforementioned criteria.


Out of the previously mentioned sample, 103 advertisements for alcoholic beverages were examined. Of these 103 advertisements, 38 (36.9%) contained content that appealed to, or was directed at, consumers under the legal drinking age of 21. As Table 2 shows, the two most commonly met criteria were Criterion #1 and Criterion #2. The first of these, Criterion #1, relates to the use of cartoons. Of all print advertisements examined, 11.65% contained cartoons. The high prevalence of this type of content can most directly be attributed to advertisements by Captain Morgan’s Rum. Each advertisement by this company contained a cartoon pirate, varying in size depending on the advertisement. While the use of a cartoon alone can be construed as appealing to underage consumers, the fact that a pirate was used increases the viability of the claim that these advertisements appeal to underage consumers. Pirates are characters often emulated by people well below the legal drinking age, often for play or for Halloween costumes. As mentioned above, Criterion #2 was also the most prevalent type of content. In order to meet Criterion #2, advertisements had to have content which involved situations that are reserved for, or typically involving, consumers between the ages of 12 and 20. This criterion was also met by 11.65% of advertisements examined. Unlike Criterion #1, however, the high occurrence of this type of content cannot be attributed to just one company. An advertisement by Molson provides a good example of the type of situation, which met this criterion. This advertisement depicted a father figure sitting down with a younger man, presumably his son, explaining sex. The “sex talk” is a situation that is typically reserved for teenagers. By depicting this type of situation in a beer advertisement, Molson is allowing underage consumers to view this advertisement and relate to the situation, therefore creating appeal to these consumers. Criterion #8 was the next most prevalent theme identified amongst the alcohol print advertisements. This criterion’s theme related to the use of alcohol with soda. This theme was observed in an ad by Absolute Vodka. Absolute Vodka advertised its ‘Absolute Vanilla’ in a manner which does not explicitly mention the fact that the drink is an alcohol beverage, specifically vodka. Instead, the punch line to the advertisement reads as follows, “Absolute Float. Skip the scoop. Absolute Vanilla + Chilled Cola + Crushed Ice.” Thus, it can be construed as an advertisement that directs more attention to the soda aspect of the ad rather than the hard liquor aspect. The next most frequently occurring theme related to Criterion #5. This criterion emphasizes the use of popular musicians and music as endorsers of alcoholic beverages. During the teen years, it is highly common for people to have popular musicians as role models. For example, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Jay-Z happen to be role models to many teens. The use of such role models to endorse alcoholic beverages may appeal to people under the legal drinking age. The next most frequent theme related to Criterion #3. This criterion pertains to the use of endorsers who are typically used in media directed at or appealing to people between the ages of 12 to 20. Similar to Criterion #5, popular television and movie actors can also be construed as role models to underage consumers. For example, actors like Mike Myers in movies such as Cat in the Hat and Shrek, or Heather Gram in Austin Powers, or Jesse James in Monster Garage. A particular advertisement by Coors uses Jesse James to endorse their beer. Jesse James is the star of the popular family television show Monster Garage. By using the star of a family program, it is possible that Coors is unintentionally appealing to teenage consumers who regularly watch the show. Finally, Criteria #7 and #9 were the next most frequently depicted themes. Criterion #7 relates to the theme of underage parties without adult supervision. For example, an advertisement by Keystone Light depicts a case of beer being hidden outside a window in a planter, followed by the punch line “Parties Happen”. The scenario created in this advertisement implicitly shows how late night parties can occur while concealing the alcoholic beverages in planter boxes. Criterion #9 pertains to the use of high school situations, such as the use of tests, fundraisers, or other extra-curricular activities. For example, Molson Beer advertises the use of scantron testing to promote their beer. Provided in the advertisement are testing instructions and a scantron sheet similar to those used for high school and university testing. The use of scantron form directly relates to the experiences of underage consumers in high school or university settings. Furthermore, the themes contained in Criteria #6 and #4 were not found to be frequently used in magazine advertisements content analyzed in this study. In conclusion, it seems as though multiple alcoholic beverage advertisements are implicitly targeting underage consumers through the use of appeals which depict situations, endorsers, scenarios, or characters that are related to teenagers and popular media directed at teenagers.


Based on the results of this study, it is clear that a fairly large portion of alcoholic beverage advertisements in popular magazines have content that is directed at, or appealing to, underage consumers. It is possible that the alcoholic beverage industry will begin to face criticism for these marketing tactics, whether intentional or not. The result of this would have very important implications for managers related to the alcoholic beverage industry. Firstly, companies currently including content directed at, or appealing to, underage consumers should take a proactive stance and revise their advertisements to be directed exclusively at consumers of the legal drinking age. The risks are great for those companies that will wait till there is a public outcry and are then forced to take a defensive position. Possible expenses involved with this type of defensive approach include legal costs to fight lawsuits, expensive settlements of lawsuits, increased public relations expenses in order to improve public image, and loss of brand value due to highly publicized accusations. Additionally, the Beer Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States needs to be proactive by setting even stricter guidelines regarding content in advertisements. Furthermore, these guidelines need to be more tightly regulated, and consequences of not following these guidelines should be severe. Secondly, managers in the alcoholic beverage industry need to expend monetary resources towards marketing research that would ensure that their advertisements aren’t directed at, and aren’t appealing to, underage consumers. This research will prove to be especially valuable in determining ways to advertise to consumers between the ages of 21 and 25 without simultaneously targeting consumers under 21.

In conclusion, more research needs to be done examining the content of television advertisements, radio advertisements, and web-based advertisements. The criterion presented in this study also needs to be validated in future studies. The relationship between this content and the occurrence of underage drinking also needs to be researched in order to understand what, or if, there is a correlation between the two. Finally, different methodologies like advertising recall experiments and surveys need to be conducted to better explore this phenomenon.



Criteria * #1 #2 #3

Cartoons Situations Endorsers

Number of

Ads meeting 12 12 4



(Percentage) (11.65%) (11.65%) (3.88%)

Criteria * #4 #5 #6

Rebellion Popular Underage

music Models

Number of

Ads meeting 1 7 0



(Percentage) (0.97%) (6.79%) (0%)

Criteria * #7 #8 9 High

Parties Soda school

Number of

Ads meeting 3 10 3



(Percentage) (2.91%) (9.71%) (2.91%)

* It was possible for an advertisement

to meet more than one of the criteria.


Baldor, L.C., “Commercials, higher taxes targeted in teen drinking troubles”, The Associated Press State & Local Wire, 2003.

Ballie, R., “Teen drinking more dangerous than previously thought”, Monitor on Psycology, April 21, 2004.

Berman, H., “California Residents Claim Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Lure Minors with Deceptive Products and Targeted Advertising; Suit Claims Companies Target Teens With Ads and ‘Alcopops’ That Look and Taste Like Soft Drinks”, PR Newswire, 2004.

Bess, A., “Ad Hangover?”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 19, 2003, pg. C1,.

Center for Science in the Public Interest Alcohol Policies Project, “What Teens and Adults are Saying about ‘Alcopops'”, 2001, http://www.cspinet.org/booze/alcopops summary.htm.

Curtis, J., “Alcopops the demon drink?”, Marketing, 1997, pg. 20, 2 pgs.

Focus Adolescent Services, “Alcohol and Teen Drinking”, 2000, http://www.focusas.com/Alcohol.html.

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Lawton, C. and Wilke, J., “Lawsuit Alleges Alcohol Industry Targets Underage Drinkers”, The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2003, pg. B.1.

–“Assault on Youths’ Drinking Urged”, The Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2003, pg. D.3.

Melillo, W., “New York assembly takes aim at ‘Alcopops’ ads”, Adweek, October 28, 2002, 39, 3.

Miller, T., “The Limiting Factor: economic costs of underage drinking”, DRIVEN magazine, Fall 1999.

Mitchell, D., “Youth remain target for alcohol products, study concludes”, University Wire, Feb. 16, 2004.

Morris, R., “Computerized content analysis in management research: A demonstration of advantages and limitations”, Journal of Management, Winter 1994, Vol. 20, Iss. 4, pg. 903.

SAMHSA, “Youth and Underage Drinking: An Overview”, Alcohol & Drug Information, 1999 http://www.health.org/govpubs/RPO990/.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “Underage and Adult Excessive Drinking Accounts for Half of U.S. Alcohol Sales”, 2003, http://www.jointogether.org/sa/news/alerts/reader /0%2C1854%2C561887%2C00.html.

Tomlinson, S, “Researcher tells commission that alcohol ads target youths”, The Oregonian, October 18, 2003, pg. B6.

Untitled, “Industry relies on teen drinkers, says liquor study”, The Dominion Post, February 27, 2003.

Author Profiles:

Brady Stubblefield is in his junior year of undergraduate studies at California State University, Chico. He was recently inducted into the Beta Gamma Sigma Honor Society.

Dr. Nitish Singh is an Associate Professor of Marketing at California State University Chico. His publications include Journal of International Business Studies, Journal of Business Research, Psychology & Marketing and others.

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