Trying to figure out how much third-graders knew about beer, Erica Austin set out to see how quickly they could identify a brand of suds by its logo.
Talk about a Lite test.
“We found that our questions were way too easy,” recalled Austin, an assistant professor of communication at Washington State University. “Ninety percent of them knew all the answers.”
The Bud Bowl. Tastes great, less filling. Snow White and the Seven Drafts. It’s enough to make a 9-year-old want to reach for a long neck.
Indeed, young people see so many television beer ads and so much drinking by their parents and other adults that many develop a loyalty toward a particular brand by the time they are 10, according to Austin.
Four out of five preschoolers can identify alcohol by smell, said Austin.
An American Health Foundation survey released just last week found one in every three sixth-graders has tried alcohol. One study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found a typical American junior high school student can name more brands of beer than they can U.S. presidents.
As Austin noticed in her 1992 study, children know more about beer brands than about alcohol’s effects on the human body.
Austin and a graduate student now are setting out to short-circuit the effect of alcohol advertising by teaching children to assess its beery fantasy land.
By teaching children how to challenge the assumptions of an advertisement, the researchers hope to give them the tools to realize beer-clutching men may not be completely truthful when they say, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Their demographic target: third-graders, a group that has yet to fully absorb the major myths that drinking makes one more sexy, funny, adventurous and likable.
“It’s always easier to teach something than to change something that’s already been taught,” Austin said.
By the time they are in the sixth grade, children already have begun turning away from the influence of their parents and toward that of their peers, Austin said.
At the same time, “they’re also starting to understand television a lot better,” she said. “And television is sort of a form of peer influence.”
America’s beverage industry, which spends about $1 billion a year in advertising, doesn’t exactly agree it is corrupting young minds and future livers.
Joseph Fischer, author of “Advertising, Alcohol Consumption, and Abuse,” said ads tend to get people to use one brand over another rather than increase a given product’s use.
“There’s a very, very small percentage of alcohol consumption that can be attributed to advertising,” said Fischer, whose book, a worldwide survey of alcohol advertising research, was paid for by the AnheuserBusch brewing company.
Moreover, he said, “lifestyle advertising,” so popular in beer ads, tends to offer generic scenarios in which the product just as easily could be chewing gum or something else.
WSU’s Austin said there is indeed no difference between the techniques used in, say, a soda pop ad and a beer ad.
“But the difference is alcohol is really dangerous,” she said. “You need to know how to use it. They don’t teach that other side.”
Her concern about the effect of alcohol advertising is echoed by the Washington state Department of Health. The department last year launched a $1 million multimedia ad campaign encouraging young people to see through the hype of pro-alcohol messages.
For fear of having her own results skewed by the campaign, Austin stationed her experiment in Roseville, Minn., home of graduate student Kristine Kay Johnson.
The “media literacy” program has students view “Buy Me That,” a 20-minute Consumer Reports video about critical TV viewing, plus half a dozen or so advertisements for pop and alcohol. The students then discuss the ads in terms of three R’s they should use when viewing an ad, asking themselves if it is realistic, right or wrong and if it relates to their lives.
As an added incentive, they are given a bookmark saying they pledge to remember their TV ABCs “Always Be Critical” - when watching television ads. Members of the ABC club also get free cookies.
Eventually, Austin would like to develop a video and study guide that could be used by school systems everywhere. A pilot study of the technique showed that, while it needs occasional reinforcement, it can be effective, she said.
“I think it will work,” Austin said, “but I also think that it’s just a very small dose of prevention. It’s one hour for one day. Compared with all the other influences they have in their life, it’s not much.”
Parents can have a greater role by showing what is not true in ads, talking with kids about ads at an early age and not falling for the sales pitches themselves, Austin said.
“Parents are a much bigger influence than television - much bigger,” she said. “But if parents aren’t getting involved, television is a huge influence. We basically found that where parents aren’t filling in, television is.”
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