Cash Chugged, Sipped Away

Ellen Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief

College grads move out into the real world with $26,600 debt on average, and that dollar amount is growing each year. Included in that steep sum is the cost of tuition, books, meal plans, residential life – and alcohol.

The average college student spends $900 a year on alcohol, according to the Student Health Service from the University of Pennsylvania. Multiply that by four years at college and that number jumps to $3,600.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates excessive alcohol use costs $223.5 billion a year.

Take any typical, college based movie: “Animal House”, “Old School”, “Legally Blonde”. These movies take place at universities and have one central element in common.

John Belushi going to a toga party. Will Ferrell shotgunning beers. Reese Witherspoon dressing as a Playboy bunny.

Through the Hollywood lens, drinking is glamorized. Drinking has no consequences.

High school students look to these films to learn what college is about, to see what they will do in just a few short years. Students watch party scenes and feel like they need to live up to the expectations. They want to feel part of a college culture.

Dr. Aaron White, Health Science Administrator of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, said incoming college freshmen expect these movie scenes to translate to reality.

“We do know that for college students their expectations about what role alcohol is going to play in their lives influences how much they drink when they get there,” White said. “And where do those expectations come from? Movies and shows that depict young people in college drinking.”

Between television, radio, billboards and magazines, participants in a Department of Health and Human Services survey found roughly 22.7 alcohol advertisements a month. The survey aimed to evaluate the relationship between marketing exposure and alcohol use with participants ranging in age from 15 to 26 years old.

The study found each additional advertisement that participants viewed during a 21 month time span was associated with a 1% increase in consumption.

Marketers want to start their audience off young and keep them hooked for as long as possible so they used participants from ages 15 to 26.  In other words, teens start chugging beers before college and ended their habits years after graduation, according to studies by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dean of Students Kit Foley reported that 85 to 90 percent of the current freshmen class admitted to drinking alcohol prior to college.

Incoming students take a survey during orientation with questions concerning alcohol and drug consumption. The questionnaire is anonymous and students are asked to answer honestly.

“It’s not something that they’re learning here. It’s something they’re continuing here,” she said.

Foley said that college students view drinking as the socially acceptable thing to do. For most college students, using beer bongs and flipping red solo cups is a social norm and the number one activity on a weekend night. Students can learn those habits from a number of places, one of them being advertisements and Hollywood flicks.

Between 2001 and 2007, there were more than 2 million television ads and 20,000 magazine ads for alcoholic products.

“When you watch college sports, it’s more beer than anything and then of course beverage manufactures have deals with networks and programs that they are the dominate advertising in the program,” White said.

Communications professor Dan Kimbrough noticed that commercials or advertisements promoting alcohol products never display college scenes. Marketers use college aged students to make the scenes feel more lively but rarely use a college setting because that could show underage drinking. They gear the advertisements to a younger crowd but use older people.

“I don’t know if there are specific laws, but I think marketing wise it’s never a college setting but it is college age individuals. Or it’s 21-year-olds who are the young, the vibrant ones,” he said.

He also noticed that movies, like Old School, rarely portray problems related to alcohol. There is always that one character who has a drinking problem and that character is the outcast. Most comedies and blockbuster hits don’t show the serious side to alcohol. Kimbrough said even if those movies were available, people wouldn’t buy into them.

“I don’t know if anyone would watch it,” he said of a serious movie related to alcohol or drug problems. “I don’t know in our culture if we want to see advertising or TV or movies that’s that real. And if it does, it’s not the kind of movie that gets great reception or that that would be piece that comes out of it.”

Kimbrough knows movies that show the serious side to alcohol do exist. He says the problem is getting people to watch and enjoy them as well as take away the greater message after they leave the theater.

“No one’s looking at serious movies with a message saying, ‘No you shouldn’t do this because it can do this because it can lead to a negative life.’ There is always an excuse built into the movie that it was really an anomaly.”

Kimbrough isn’t against advertising to college kids. He understands that this specific age group is an important consumer demographic. He feels that the ads need to tell the whole story about the real-life effects of alcohol abuse.

“We never see anyone drunk, but in small letters, ‘please drink responsibly,’” he said.

Other, perhaps less obvious, forms of marketing also target college students. Local bars and pubs offer drink specials fit for a college student’s wallet.

And, Kimbrough says most college-aged students go to the bar because it’s cheap and something to do, not because they enjoy the taste of alcohol.

“I think there are very few people in that age category that go out to drink because they enjoy the taste of alcohol. Or go out to drink because they enjoy just socializing,” he said. “And I think that’s the negative when we really start to think about it is that the goal is to go out and consume as much alcohol as you can before closing time. You’re going to get drunk, there is no doubt about that.”

One Dallas bar popular among students offers different weekly drink specials. A favorite is beer in draft or pints for less than $2.

“Bars that have five cent beers, clearly that leads to more drinking when you can get wasted for 85 cents. We know that when you stop bars from doing that drinking goes down,” White said.

This marketing effort isn’t just prompting students to booze it up in the Back Mountain. Officials see that alcohol companies gear their advertisements to incoming college students all over the country. And those students know that as the culture in America.

“I think what I have seen is that I think many students see it as a rite,” Foley said of Misericordia students who consume alcohol. “I think we have a lot of good students that work academically. I think they study hard and I think they party hard. And I think they feel it’s their right and their release.”

Students see men and women drinking or partying in commercials or movies and expect that to become reality when it’s their turn to go out to the bars or house parties. They look forward to living out scenes from Old School or Animal House. Little do they know most college kids don’t experience the glamorous life Hollywood portrays in their flicks. They don’t get to see the real outcome.

Information from American Academy of Family Physicians about alcohol advertising:

  • Before graduating high school, students will spend about 18,000 hours in front of the television.
  • During this time they will watch about 2,000 alcohol commercials on television each year.
  • In all, youth view 45% more beer ads and 27% more liquor ads in magazines than do people of legal drinking age.
  • In 1996, for example, the Budweiser Frogs were more recognizable to children aged 9-11 than the Power Rangers, Tony the Tiger, or Smokey the Bear.

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