“Are you drunk?” asks James T. Kirk in a scene from the 2013 film Star Trek: Into Darkness. Kirk is on the phone with his trusty engineer Scotty, attempting to ask him about a series of mysterious coordinates. The scene switches over to the loud bar in which Scotty is sitting. Next to him is a sleek, futuristic bottle of Budweiser beer—which is apparently still being marketed in 2259.
This kind of scene is no accident, contends new research being presented Tuesday at the 2017 annual Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting. Alcohol brand placement has nearly doubled over the past two decades, the authors find, and most of that is likely paid product placement.
"More than 80 percent of movies contain depictions of alcohol use," says Dartmouth University pediatrician James D. Sargent, who has been combing films for their depictions of violence, tobacco, drugs and drinking for more than 20 years. While this percentage remained relatively unchanged during those two decades, the presence of specific brands depicted on screen increased dramatically.
Sargent argues that the vast majority of alcohol depiction in films now is likely product placement. He found that roughly 44 percent of the 2,000 films studied showed real alcohol brands over the 20-year period studied. Moreover, the depiction of alcohol brands increased 96 percent in the movies studied, from 140 appearances in the top 100 films in 1996 to 282 appearances in the top 100 films of 2015.
The most-frequently seen brands were Budweiser, Miller and Heineken, says co-author Samantha Cukier, a public policy researcher who works with Sargent at Dartmouth, with the triad representing one-third of the total brands seen. "We assume it's being paid for,” says Sargent. While the alcohol and film industries have resisted efforts to disclose paid brand placement, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, Budweiser was a major partner in marketing the film.
For this research, two longtime professional viewers from Sargent's team looked at the top 100 earning films from 1996 to 2015, and watched them closely for alcohol use and specific brands. They found that more than 1,700 of those some 2,000 films depicted alcohol consumption. In total, 93 percent of R-rated films and 92 percent of PG-13-rated films released during those years featured alcohol being consumed.
It isn’t just adult films that are heavy on the booze. According to the research, 72 percent of PG-rated films and 46 percent of G-rated films surveyed featured alcohol use. While that number appears to have stayed steady over time, again, brand placements nearly doubled within the 20-year period. For instance, in the 2003 film “Elf”—described as a “good-natured family comedy” by the film review website Rotten Tomatoes—Will Ferrell accidentally pours whiskey into his coffee, and then starts the party at work.
"It can really deliver a lot of alcohol images to an underage group," Sargent says.
Sargent compares this trend to portrayals of tobacco use in movies. To stop a flood of lawsuits from states and people seeking compensation for illness and death from smoking cigarettes they had been told was safe, America's largest tobacco companies agreed in 1998 to a settlement that, among other things, put restrictions on funding product placement in movies. In a study last year, Sargent and others found the depiction of smoking and tobacco brands in movies dropped by roughly half in the years following the settlement.
If similar film restrictions were put on the alcohol industry, Sargent says, "I would bet that you would get the same kind of decline with alcohol." However, this is an unlikely proposition, as there there is no similar flood of lawsuits against alcohol companies, and Sargent says that the public and lawmakers generally tend to view alcohol as less malicious than tobacco.
"There's a substantial amount of research out there now" about teen drinking and movies, Sargent says. Much of this peer-reviewed research has been led by Sargent himself, and has found that the more movies with alcohol use a teen has watched, the more likely he or she is to try drinking. These studies surveyed students in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany and asked them which movies they’d watched and about their attitudes and consumption of alcohol.
Unsurprisingly to Sargent, they found that alcohol-infused movies appeared to encourage drinking among these adolescents. While no comparable study has been conducted in Europe, the prevalence may be even higher there: one study found that 100 percent of the most viewed European films in 2009 depicted or mentioned alcohol use.
"The alcohol industry has long figured out that they can get their brands out there in movies and they will not be monitored as closely as if they were doing commercials in the more traditional way," says Cristel Russell, a marketing professor at American University who was not involved in this research. "We know these companies are in the entertainment marketing business."
Russell's past research has found similar impacts of alcohol depiction in television shows on teenagers. In a study that is now being peer reviewed at the Journal of Health Communication, Russell developed mock television episodes with all details and characters the same except for one had a storyline where drinking led to positive outcomes (such as getting a girl or making friends), while another had drinking lead to negative outcomes (such as social awkwardness).
For the subjects, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, just one exposure to the “positive” alcohol storyline led them to express more positive attitudes toward drinkers.
"You're clearly having an influence on the views that teenagers have of the consequences of drinking," Russell says. Between experimental research like hers and content analysis research like Sargent's study, she adds, "there's no doubt in my mind that there's enough of a body of evidence out there" to prove that alcohol depiction in movies is a considerable public health problem.
While the average viewer can't do much to stop this, Russell says that increasing teens’ media literacy can help them resist these subtle messages, because teenagers often don't like to feel like they're being manipulated into liking something. "By merely being aware of these influences, you can counteract them a little bit," Russell says. One such effort is the U.S. government’s “Too Smart to Start” program, which creates resource guides and advertisements that encourage kids to be aware of the subliminal messaging.
Sargent is looking next to review more than 10 studies that have tracked the outcomes of roughly 50,000 young people to disentangle how exposure to alcohol in movies affected their lives. In the future, he hopes that the film industry will take a more active role in helping parents keep track of their children's viewing experiences, pointing out that the current film rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't provide any warning for films that show drinking—even for movies targeted at the youngest viewers.
"If there's alcohol brand placement, they're not going to find out about it until they watch the movie," Sargent says. "That to me is a much more important component to the ratings than the f-word."