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Brand-name beers are kids' beverage of choice when drinking brews, Iowa State study shows

Researchers find children are noticing even if advertisers aren't targeting them

Bottles of beer move along a conveyor belt at an Anheuser-Busch bottling facility in St. Louis. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)
Bottles of beer move along a conveyor belt at an Anheuser-Busch bottling facility in St. Louis. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

AMES — Kids know a lot about beer.

A new Iowa State University study shows beer companies with large advertising budgets have a strong influence on underage drinking.

“Behaviors are the hardest thing to predict because we’re not little robots. But we found a large correlation between ad budgets and behaviors, so which brands kids are actually drinking,” said Douglas Gentile, lead author and ISU psychology professor, who spent part of his career working in market research.

The study surveyed 1,588 middle- and high-school students from Minnesota and New York and discovered that 99 percent of them recognized the Budweiser and Bud Light brand and 44 percent said they had consumed it. The study examined the top 26 beer companies spending money on advertising.

Throughout the study, researchers asked students the kinds of questions advertisers generally ask, which are more direct and clear, or psychology questions that try to find expectancies in drinking. But the results were the same.

“No matter what we did, Budweiser came out with 99 percent brand awareness,” Gentile said.

Throughout the last two years, Budweiser and Bud Light spent nearly $500 million in advertising, according to the study. The second highest spender was Miller and Miller Lite, which spent just over $250 million.

Although parents and peers play a vital role in how children perceive a brand, the study showed advertising might play a larger role.

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“We know peers and parents play an important role in an adolescent’s alcohol use, and we have some support here indicating that alcohol advertising is also an integral part of adolescent alcohol use. In essence, we have another area we can target with prevention and intervention efforts directed toward adolescent alcohol use,” Brooke Arterberry, a co-author and professor of psychology at ISU, said in an email.

Which left the researchers asking themselves why children had such a high awareness of a beer brand.

Although the researchers cannot verify whether beer advertisers are purposefully targeting children, they can say for certain that children are noticing.

“Regardless of whether these companies are targeting children or not, they’re clearly hitting them,” Gentile said.

When study participants were asked to identify their favorite television advertisements, 32 percent of the ads named were alcohol-related, and 20 percent of those were commercials for a Budweiser brand.

“They often use techniques that children are particularly vulnerable to. We know kids like funny voices, humor, special effects, animals and animation and if your show or ad has those things, then the more attention it’s going to get,” Gentile said.

A Federal Trade Commission rules appearing to limit alcohol advertising can be deceiving, the researchers said. One of these rules is that no more than 28.4 percent of the audience may consist of be under 21, according to the FTC website.

But “that (28.4 percent) is really hard to hit. For example, using that bar, you can still advertise whiskey and beer on the ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ cartoon that’ll be shown next month,” Gentile said. “What sounds like a responsible policy is kind of like a get out of jail free card.”

Arterberry wants to better understand the role advertising has on adolescents, especially through social media, and how it could be different from parents’ and peers’ impact on underage drinking.

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“This is a complex relationship and knowing when and where to intervene, we can reduce the negative effects of alcohol misuse,” she said.

Although there is likely to be more research performed on the topic, for now Gentile wants these advertisers to realize the affects they are having on children.

“These results were astonishing and saddening, because the question became ‘Do we think that our beer companies are targeting children?,’ Gentile said. “I’m hopeful this data will get beer companies and other alcohol companies to be a little more careful about the techniques they’re using.”

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