Cornell researchers said that this odd thing may be making you drink more alcohol

There’s a lot of debate nowadays surrounding whether or not TV commercials are worth it anymore. A few decades ago, television was America’s go-to source for entertainment, news, and sports, but things have changed quite a bit since the 80s or 90s. Today, we’re all browsing online or streaming content far more often than watching cable, which means advertisers and brands have started placing much more focus on digital marketing.

Still, according to a new study just released by Cornell University, there’s at least one industry that is still reaching its desired goals through TV advertising: alcohol companies. Researchers have found that the more TV alcohol ads one sees, the more likely that person is to report having at least one drink over the past month. Moreover, for regular drinkers, more ads seen is directly linked to more and more drinks consumed.

Besides perhaps cars or medications, no one industry dominates TV air space like alcohol. Virtually every other commercial during big sporting events is for beer, liquor, and then some more beer. One could certainly assume that most viewers have become essentially numb to the appeal of Budweiser’s Clydesdales or Coors Light’s beer train, but these findings suggest that such ads still make a difference. 

The researchers theorize that alcohol ads on TV may be so effective due to sheer persistence; if you hear the same message over and over again at some point it’s going to sink in, to some degree.

“These ads are so ubiquitous, especially for certain types of audiences, that this cumulative, repeated exposure seems to have the potential to reinforce the behavior,” says study co-author Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a university release. “Higher exposure to the ads is clearly and consistently linked to higher levels of drinking.”

For example, the average American adult saw close to 600 TV commercials for alcohol in 2012. That’s well more than once per day.

For their research, the team at Cornell analyzed commercial data (time of placements, channels that played the ads) on beer, wine, and liquor ads across over 200 TV media markets in the US between 2010 and 2013. Then, that information was combined with self-reported TV viewing and drinking habits collected from nearly 55,000 adults. So, for instance, all that data enabled researchers to determine that a specific participant who watched “The Office” during that period probably saw a beer ad that played during a commercial break in their market.

There have been similar studies in the past, but those relied on more rough data taking measures that didn’t account for possible viewing preference fluctuations. 

“We were able to come up with a much more precise estimate of the likelihood of a particular individual being exposed to an ad,” says Niederdeppe.

All in all, researchers estimated that the average American was exposed to 576 alcohol commercials per year, with about 70% of those ads being for, what else, beer. Somewhat predictably, men saw nearly twice as many beer commercials as their female counterparts. But, women saw more wine commercials. Furthermore, African-Americans are exposed to far more alcohol commercials than Caucasians. The study’s authors estimated that African-Americans see about 150 more alcohol commercials annually. As far as why this racial disparity exists, researchers say it is likely due to industry targeting.

“These patterns were consistent across demographic groups and they were consistent across alcohol types,” Niederdeppe comments.

According to the study, if an individual were to see twice as many alcohol commercials than usual, their odds of having a drink increases by 11%. Among regular drinkers, double the exposure to alcohol commercials would result in 5% more drinks being consumed. To be clear, the influence of these ads on one’s drinking habits is subtle and probably goes completely unnoticed by the average adult.

“Maybe it’s a handful of drinks, but it’s a handful of drinks spread across a very large number of people,” Niederdeppe adds. “To the extent that increases in alcohol consumption, particularly at high levels, are associated with negative health outcomes, then there’s the potential for a significant effect at the population level.”

It’s a poorly kept secret at this point that alcohol doesn’t do our bodies any favors, and these findings call into question if it’s really in the public’s best interest to flood the airwaves with alcohol advertising. On a broader level, this study just goes to show how influential commercials can be on our spending and consumption habits, even when we’re not fully aware that we’re being swayed. 

The full study can be found here, published in Addiction. 

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.