Drink up

New study from Austin professor says booze ads don't affect how much you drink

Austin professor says booze ads don't affect how much you drink

Craft beers along a bar
UT professor Gary Wilcox says alcohol advertising doesn't have an effect on consumption. iStock

Recent legislation in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco has banned alcohol ads in certain instances. However, important new research out of the University of Texas at Austin says that booze advertisements have little effect on overall alcohol consumption.

UT Austin advertising professor Gary Wilcox examined the relationship between alcohol advertising and total consumption of beer, liquor and wine in a new study published in the International Journal of Advertising. Wilcox and Ph.D. candidates Eun Yeon Kang and Lindsay Chilek found that there was, at best, a weak relationship between the two. Advertising was more focused on particular brands fighting for market share, the study notes.

“You can only put so much liquid in the stomach, so to speak,” Wilcox says. “Since the market's not increasing, the different brands or categories of alcohol are trying to slice up the market and get a bigger share.”

The researchers looked at per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. between 1971 and 2011 and found that in the 40-year span, per capita consumption stayed relatively constant. The changes were in how people consumed different types of alcohol.

“Beer has been on a 10-year decline, and the reasons for that I don't know,” Wilcox says. “You can't figure everything out, but we looked at if advertising had a role, and it didn't. Spirits are up, and wine has kind of gone up and down. It follows people's preferences and what they choose to drink — the changing tastes of society.”

In that same 40-year span, spending on advertising has increased 400 percent. Wilcox says that the study can help show that bans on advertising won't curb consumption. So far, Los Angeles and Philadelphia prohibit alcohol advertising on municipal property, and San Francisco prohibits ads on public transportation.

“Why would you ban it?” he says. “If you're trying to reduce consumption, a ban might not be the most effective route. Free speech is an important part of this thing, too. If you're banning a truthful message about a legal product then I generally say that's not a good idea either; it seems more intuitive to increase communication so we can make autonomous choices.”