PISCATAWAY, NJ - Young people's exposure to alcohol advertisements on television could be greatly reduced if alcohol companies improved their use of so-called no-buy lists, according to a study in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Alcohol manufacturers are self-regulated when it comes to advertising: In 2003, the industry set guidelines that limit advertising to media that have a primarily adult audience -- with at least 71.6 percent of the audience being age 21 or older.
But as far back as 1999, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had suggested that the industry use no-buy lists to guide their ad placements. Such lists would put certain television shows or other media off-limits because a large chunk of the audience is likely to be underage.
"It's been cited by the FTC as a 'best practice,'" said Craig Ross, Ph.D., the lead researcher on the new study, president of Fiorente Media, Inc., in Boston, Mass, and Research Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. Ross is also a consultant to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which supported this research.
Some alcohol companies have been using no-buy lists to guide their ad placements, according to the FTC.
"Since 2005, kids have been exposed more than 15 billion times to alcohol advertisements that do not meet industry guidelines," Ross said. "Regardless of how no-buy lists have been implemented in the past, there is clearly room for improvement."
The goal of the new study, Ross explained, was to develop a "comprehensive" approach.
First, the researchers looked at how well the alcohol industry has been complying with its own guidelines when it comes to television ads. They found that between 2005 and 2012, approximately one of every eight alcohol advertisements seen by children under the legal drinking age was non-compliant with alcohol industry guidelines -- with cable television accounting for most of it.
Next, Ross's team tested the potential effectiveness of a set of new no-buy list criteria they'd designed. The criteria would recommend avoiding ad placements on programs that had fallen short of the industry's own guidelines in the past year and during times of day when television audiences skew young (like late night). The criteria also recommend being more selective about ad placements on low-rated cable shows.
The researchers found that, had their no-buy list been universally applied during the study period, it could have eliminated nearly all noncompliant advertising seen by children under the legal drinking age.
According to Ross, using the no-buy list should not be a burden to the industry.
"The programs that are problematic are actually small in number," he said. "There would be still be a large universe of programs for advertisers to choose from."
To get the no-buy list into the real world, Ross said the plan is to create quarterly reports that highlight the programs and times of day that alcohol advertisers should avoid.
The ultimate hope, of course, is to help limit underage drinking. And while restricting ads is not the whole answer, it is an important step, according to Ross -- because advertising images can help set kids' expectations regarding alcohol.
"There's a growing body of research on the effects of alcohol advertising on underage drinking," Ross said. "Ads can help create positive attitudes toward drinking, promoting drinking initiation and excessive drinking."