In Boston — home of the tight-budget college student and the common hipster — certain brands of beer are expected at parties. Pabst Blue Ribbon — maybe Natty Ice if the budget’s extra tight that week — or, if the hosts are feeling classy, some Rolling Rock.
However, a new Boston University study suggests that underage drinkers are actually stepping it up — if one considers Bud Light an improvement.
Lead researchers of the study said the results might have wider implications for the future advertisement of alcoholic beverages.
A new study conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health and the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health surveyed more than 1,000 youth drinkers to determine the top 10 most consumed alcohol brands among the underage population.
The most popular brand was Bud Light, which 27.9 percent of the survey participants said they had consumed within the past month. Behind Bud Light, Smirnoff malt beverages took second place at 17 percent and — surprise! — Budweiser in third at 14.6 percent.
The study, titled Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and published online on EurekAlert, is the first of its kind, according to a Feb. 11 EurekAlert press release.
Researchers said no study has ever looked at youth alcohol preference by brand before.
“What I discovered, to my surprise, was that there are no data on alcohol brand preferences of underage drinkers. It just doesn’t exist,” said lead researcher Michael Siegel.
Siegel, a SPH professor of community health sciences, said he developed the idea for the study after looking at people’s preferences for cigarette brands.
For years, Siegel worked in the area of tobacco and studied the relationship between brand-specific advertising and youth preferences. Recently, he decided to shift his attention to alcohol.
“I wanted to get data on what brands of alcohol underage youth are drinking and then compare that to the brand advertising patterns of alcohol,” said Siegel.
While there are thousands of alcohol brands worldwide, Siegel’s study focused on the most popular brands.
Siegel said he plans to conduct another study to compare the brands’ marketing strategies.
Funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Siegel’s study used a pre-existing Internet panel: A group of youths, aged between 13 and 20, who agreed to take surveys periodically. The panel was selected to represent a national population.
Siegel said the survey consisted of several categories of alcohol, including vodka, beer, rum and tequila. Each category had a drop-down menu with specific brands.
Participants were asked to indicate brands they had consumed within 30 days. When they indicated they had consumed a certain brand, the survey asked them to answer how many days and, on average, how many drinks per day.
The results, which were published in the press release, revealed that the top 10 most popular alcohols were, in order: Bud Light, Smirnoff Malt beverages, Budweiser, Smirnoff Vodka, Coors Light, Jack Daniel’s, Corona Extra, Mike’s Hard, Captain Morgan Rum and Absolut Vodkas.
Leo Shapiro, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he was surprised some other popular alcohols did not make the list.
“I thought PBR would be on there,” he said.
If Siegel’s follow-up study yields the results he anticipates, alcohol advertising could change dramatically.
“My hypothesis is that they [youths] are drinking these brands because these are the brands that are most heavily marketed toward them,” said Siegel.
Siegel said he thinks marketing is responsible for creating the most popular brands because the top 10 alcohols from the survey are all heavily advertised.
Siegel also said he thinks that the companies marketing these popular brands should alter their mode of advertising.
“[They] need to try to find ways to alter their marketing to try to make these drinks less appealing to underage youth,” he said.
He even compared alcohol advertising to cigarette ads, which he said are no longer allowed on public transit systems, billboards or television.
“If it turns out that marketing does affect youth alcohol use, then I think it would be reasonable for the federal government to regulate the exposure of youth to alcohol advertising,” Siegel said.
Edward Boches, a BU advertising professor, said he had a different view from Siegel.
“Certainly, marketing has a large part to do with consumer preference, but I don’t know if it’s 100 percent responsible for the specific brands that people pick for beverages,” Boches said.
Boches said that for any product, advertising simply elevates awareness, visibility and recognition of the product, which inevitably makes it more desirable.
But he also mentioned that the single most important influencer of alcohol preference is what is seen being consumed in a bar — or, in this case, at parties.
Emma Schrader, a freshman in the School of Education, agreed that peers’ alcohol preferences might be more influential than advertising.
“When I hear about alcohol most, it’s from other people. It’s not from advertisements,” Schrader said. “I feel like it’s the same way with most people.”
Jason Wong, a junior in the School of Engineering, agreed with Schrader.
“Maybe ads [affect popular brands] a little bit,” Wong said, “but at this point, not too much, because that’s just what everyone buys anyway.”
Boches said an item’s perceived value also makes it more desirable.
“[It] comes down to ‘Well, if it’s cooler, then I have greater permission’ or ‘The persona I convey is better because this is the brand I’m holding in my hand or I’m serving at my party,’” he said.
In other words, it is more than just advertising at work: The classic and ever-present peer pressure is also to blame.
“Advertising is an easy target, but I wouldn’t put all the blame on it for sure,” Boches said.
Siegel also mentioned that while many of the top 10 beverages were preferred by both adults and youths, he said ir was “particularly concerning” that Smirnoff malt beverages and Mike’s were more popular among youths.
“In the case of Budweiser, they probably do not target youth as much as they create advertising that is appealing to youth,” Boches said.
He said this sort of advertising likely appeals to adults as well.
However, for some companies that realize they have become the “beginner’s drink,” — to take Boches’ example, Southern Comfort — advertising may be specifically formulated to attract their biggest consumer group.
“They know, legally, that they can’t target that age group, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to figure out imagery and possibly even media that would target that age group,” Boches said.
Ultimately, Boches was clear that while advertising may affect brand preference, whether it causes underage drinking is another question entirely.
He said he does not believe banning alcohol advertisements will reduce the number of underage drinkers.
Shapiro said he believes advertising contributes to the popularization of certain alcohol brands.
“That’s what they’re trying to do, right?” he said. “They’re trying to get into your mind.”
Whether regulating the ads would make a difference in the number of underage drinkers, Siegel seems to believe it is a possibility. He suggested the government could regulate alcohol ads the same way cigarette ads have been regulated in the past.
Siegel said whether action should be taken depends on the results of his next study, which will be designed to determine if advertising is in fact influencing drinking behavior in youths.
However, CAS freshman Renee Qvistgaard said regulating alcohol advertisements would not affect the number of underage drinkers.
“If kids want to drink, they’re going to drink,” Qvistgaard said. “It’s not going to be a deterrent — kids already know the brands. They’re going to see it, even if the government tries to regulate it.”