Youth Binge Drinking Linked to Alcohol-Brand References in Pop Music

Issue Date: 
May 5, 2014

Binge drinking by teenagers and young adults is strongly associated with liking, owning, and correctly identifying music that references alcohol by brand name, says a study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire.

The findings suggest that policy and educational interventions designed to limit the influence of alcohol-brand references in popular music could be important in reducing alcohol consumption in teens and young adults. The results are published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

“EveryBrian A. Primack year, the average adolescent is exposed to about 3,000 references to alcohol brands while listening to music,” said lead author Brian A. Primack, director of the Program for Research on Media and Health in Pitt’s School of Medicine. “It is important that we understand the impact of these references in an age group that can be negatively affected by alcohol consumption.”

Alcohol is considered the third-leading, lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Brand references may serve as advertising, even if they are not paid for by the industry,” said senior author James D. Sargent, codirector of the Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire and professor of pediatrics in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

The findings were based on a national, randomized survey of more than 2,541 people ages 15 to 23.  Fifty-nine percent reported having had a complete alcoholic drink, defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor at one time. Of those, 18 percent reported binging—or drinking heavily over a short period of time—at least monthly, and 37 percent reported having had problems, such as injuries, due to alcohol.

InDrinking the survey, completed online or on paper, participants were given the titles of popular songs that include alcohol mentions and asked if they liked or owned the song. They also were tested to determine if they could spontaneously recall what brand of alcohol was mentioned in the lyrics. 

Survey participants who could correctly recall alcohol brands in songs were twice as likely to have had a complete alcoholic drink—compared to those who could not recall the brand—even after adjusting for factors including age, socioeconomic status, and alcohol use by friends or parents. The participants who could identify the alcohol brands in songs also had greater odds of having ever binged on alcohol.

“A surprising result of our analysis was that the association between recalling alcohol brands in popular music and alcohol drinking in adolescents was as strong as the influence of parental and peer drinking and an adolescent’s tendency toward sensation-seeking. This may illustrate the value that this age group places on the perceived opinions and actions of music stars,”
said Primack, who is also an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics in Pitt’s School of Medicine.

Primack said one possible solution could be to empower adolescents with critical thinking skills. “Media literacy is a growing educational methodology that may be successful in helping young people make healthier decisions,” he said. “In the case of alcohol, it may be valuable to help them understand how alcohol-brand references in music may manipulate their thoughts and emotions to sell them a product.”