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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Caroline Woodwell: University logos on beer ads send wrong message

Caroline Woodwell

It’s fall and nearly 5,000 new freshmen are arriving at Spokane’s college campuses. Four years from now this group of students will graduate.

Statistics provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggest that between now and then, one-fifth of them, 1,000 students, will suffer from alcohol use disorder, ranging from periodic binge drinking to alcoholism.

Why think about this now? Why ruin a beautiful beginning with a warning about a worrisome ending?

Because the path to the worrisome ending is under construction right now. The reader board at the Spokane Arena, for example, announces March Madness basketball games March 19-21, with tickets for subscribers available Oct. 29-31. The billboard at the corner of Division Street and Martin Luther King Way advertises beer.

Six months from now, as some of those 5,000 freshmen are making brackets for March Madness, it is likely that the billboard will still advertise beer, but with an important change. Just six months ago during March Madness 2019, that billboard featured a picture of a basketball swishing through a hoop, the Gonzaga University logo, and the Bud Light logo with “official beer sponsor” underneath. In the far right, bottom corner of the billboard was “Please drink responsibly” in small letters.

If you were a parent in town for, say, a Gonzaga University basketball game with your freshman, you could have seen that billboard with the logo on it of GU, where three-quarters of undergraduates are not old enough to drink legally. You could have interpreted it to say:

This is Gonzaga University speaking. Our basketball players drink Bud Light. We want you to drink Bud Light, too, especially when you watch our basketball games. It’s OK because Bud Light is our official beer sponsor. Also, please drink responsibly.

Then you might read the Gonzaga University Alcohol Policy which “prohibit(s) the consumption or possession of alcohol by persons under the age of 21, regardless of whether that person is on or off campus, this includes purchasing or attempting to purchase alcohol.”

Gonzaga is not alone. Nationwide, universities are increasingly complicit in problems caused by alcohol both during and after graduation. “There is movement all over the country for universities to start selling alcohol and accepting alcohol companies’ sponsorships,” says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University.

And students are particularly susceptible to messages from their universities.

In 2018, the journal Psychological Science published results of a study done to determine whether pairing a university’s trusted logo, its mascot and its colors with the logo of a beer company would affect the brains and behavior of students who saw the ads.

In that study, psychological scientist Bruce Bartholow of the University of Missouri monitored the brains of two groups of students: one who watched sports games where their own university’s logo was shown along with a beer company logo, and a second group of students who watched games where a random university logo was juxtaposed with beer logos.

Both in data from brain measurements and in follow-up surveys, Bartholow’s research team found that students had a more favorable response to the beer companies when beer logos were paired with their own university’s logo. Students trust their own universities.

Bartholow concluded that “It could be dangerous to confer feelings of safety to a product that has the potential to cause serious harm, which alcohol is known to do, particularly in this population of underage college students.”

Not long ago universities agreed with Bartholow and declined to link their sports programs with beer companies. But the opportunity for significant income through sports programs softened that resistance and universities and beer companies worked together to develop a new message: “Please drink responsibly.”

Two years from now my son will be that freshman heading off to college. What message will my son and his fellow freshmen hear from their college? Will it be the university’s alcohol policy or the billboard he passes on the way to campus? Does my son’s university want him to drink or not want him to drink? Is his university prepared to teach him how to drink responsibly?

Statistics suggest that the answer is no. Statistics suggest that a better idea is for Gonzaga University – and every university – to forgo the sponsorship money and refuse to glorify drinking at an institution that is responsible for the education of future athletes and future leaders.

Caroline Woodwell lives in Spokane.

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