Alcohol, movies and adolescents

The proposed amendment to the National Roads Traffic Regulations banning alcohol advertising is a step in the right direction. A growing body of research shows a strong association between alcohol advertising and drinking among youth. These relationships are often complex, but one thing is clear: the media has the propensity to foster positive attitudes to alcohol use as trendy and appealing, says Arvin Bhana.

A timely study by Sonya Dal Cin et al. from the University of Michigan, provides a clear example of the role that contemporary movies and advertising play in creating (and perhaps sustaining) positive attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol and tobacco use. The survey revealed that 83% of popular contemporary movies, watched by youngsters of between 10 - 14 years old, depicted drinking. This relationship was most clearly demonstrated in the case of African-American youth. Of particular interest was the extent to which alcohol depicted in movies with a PG13 rating was often indistinguishable from R rated movies, suggesting the widespread normative standards of alcohol use within Western contexts.

Environment and alcohol

However, there is a need to gain an understanding of how advertising of drinking in movies interacts with the dynamics of the lived contexts of African-American youth to create a normative context. For instance, if the social environment in which children grow up condones alcohol use, would the individual be more likely to respond favourably to alcohol advertising? It is often difficult to distinguish between cause and effect in work of a cross-sectional nature.

Alcohol and receptiveness

An examination of perceptions of sexual risk and substance abuse attributed the tendency among the youth to be more receptive to alcohol and drug use to the tolerance of deviant behaviour that exists within communities that lack social cohesion due to poverty, unemployment and crime. It is unclear how the media in South Africa fosters such associations.

Even though the youthful movie-going audience is much smaller in developing countries, what seem to be common are attempts by the media to create a positive association between alcohol use and iconic lifestyles. Alcohol advertising is likely to be attractive; not only because its use is associated with ‘good times' but also because it suggests a desirable lifestyle, particularly where there are significant environmental stresses such as poverty, violence, discrimination and unemployment.

Advertisements and lifestyle

Certainly, when smoking advertisements were common in South Africa, an attempt was made to associate smoking and brand awareness with fun and glamorous lifestyles in which attractive young people were depicted enjoying themselves in exotic locations.

The work by Dal Cin et al. clearly shows the significant role played by the movie industry in creating positive attitudes to alcohol use. They correctly identify the urgency of determining what the effects of these movies are in similar groups of adolescents worldwide and their call for understanding psychosocial processes that may underlie any causal effect becomes an extremely important research goal for which to strive.

This article is based on a commentary published in Addiction 103, 1933- 1938. Professor Arvin Bhana is the deputy executive director of the research programme on Child, Youth, Family and Social Development.