beer cup with the message "drink responsibly"

Do ‘drink responsibly’ beer ads promote drinking?

Alcohol ads urging consumers to drink in moderation don’t define what “responsible drinking” means and are often used to promote a product, a new study shows.

Basic public health information is missing from ads for beer, spirits, and other alcohol products even when they voluntarily carry—as most do—encouragement to drink responsibly or “enjoy in moderation,” the researchers say.

“While responsibility messages were present in almost nine out of 10 ads, none of them provided any information about what it means to drink responsibly,” says Katherine Clegg Smith, associate professor of health, behavior and society at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Instead,” she says, “we found that the vast majority of responsibility messages were used to convey promotional information, such as appealing product qualities or how the product should be consumed.”

Researchers analyzed all alcohol ads in US national magazines sold on newsstands from 2008 to 2010. The study is published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Most of the ads (87 percent) incorporated a responsibility message, but none actually defined responsible drinking or promoted abstinence at particular times or in certain situations. (Six of the 197 unique messages researchers identified did, however, refer to driving; three warned explicitly against driving drunk.)

When responsibility messages were accompanied by a product tagline or slogan, the messages were displayed in smaller font than the company’s tagline or slogan 95 percent of the time.

Double talk

Almost nine of every 10 ads with responsibility messages used them in some way to promote a product. Messages might include, for instance, a product’s name (“Savor Stoli Responsibly” or “DonQ is best enjoyed in moderation”), a reference to how it is consumed (“Please sip responsibly” or “Enjoy together responsibly”) or a brand characteristic (“Enjoy our quality responsibly” or “Drink with style. Drink responsibly”). In some cases, the responsibility message was contradicted directly by an image depicted in the ad or by ad copy or a tag line in larger type.

Federal regulations do not require responsibility statements in alcohol advertising, and while the alcohol industry’s voluntary codes for marketing and promotion emphasize responsibility, they provide no definition for “responsible drinking.”

“The contradiction between appearing to promote responsible drinking and the actual use of ‘drink responsibly’ messages to reinforce product promotion suggests that these messages can be deceptive and misleading,” says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins.

A better option for promoting responsible drinking in advertising would be to replace or supplement unregulated messages with prominently placed, tested warning messages that directly address behaviors presented in the ad and that do not reinforce marketing messages, Smith says.

“We know from experience with tobacco that warning messages on product containers and in advertising can affect consumption of potentially dangerous products,” she says. “We should apply that knowledge to alcohol ads and provide real warnings about the negative effects of excessive alcohol use.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded the project under a cooperative agreement.

Source: Johns Hopkins University