Watching alcohol being drunk on television can make viewers reach for the bottle themselves, a study has found.
Volunteers were more likely to help themselves to beer or wine than a soft drink when shown films or adverts portraying alcohol, said researchers.
The findings, reported in the journal Alcohol And Alcoholism, provide the first clear evidence that alcohol on TV has an immediate effect on drinking habits.
The Dutch and Canadian scientists set up a "home cinema" at their laboratory, complete with a large-screen TV and minibar stocked with a choice of alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks.
Pairs of young male students aged 18 to 29 were asked to make themselves comfortable and watch an hour-long movie clip with two commercial breaks. During this time they had unrestricted access to the minibar.
Different movies and adverts were shown that varied in the extent to which they featured alcohol.
The 80 students were split into four groups. One group watched the film American Pie, in which the characters drank alcohol 18 times and alcoholic drinks were portrayed an additional 23 times. The film was interrupted by commercial breaks which included adverts for alcohol.
Another group watched the same film with neutral commercial breaks devoid of alcohol adverts. The third group watched the film 40 Days And 40 Nights, in which alcohol was consumed only three times and alcoholic drinks shown 15 times, with commercial breaks advertising alcohol. The fourth group watched 40 Days And 40 Nights and commercials in which alcohol was absent.
Students in the first group, who saw alcohol portrayed extensively both in the film American Pie and adverts, drank an average of nearly three bottles of alcohol.
In contrast, those who watched 40 Days And 40 Nights together with "no-alcohol" adverts, drank just 1.5 bottles. The most anyone drank was four bottles, and the least amount drunk was none.
Professor Rutger Engels, from the Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, said: "This is the first experimental study to show a direct effect of exposure to alcohol portrayals on TV on viewers’ immediate drinking behaviour.
"The results were straightforward and substantial: those who watched both the alcoholic film and commercials drank, on average, 1.5 bottles more than those who watched the non-alcoholic film and commercials.
"Our study clearly shows that alcohol portrayals in films and advertisements not only affects people’s attitudes and norms on drinking in society, but it might work as a cue that affects craving and subsequent drinking in people who are drinkers. This might imply that, for example, while watching an ad for a particular brand of beer, you are not only more prone to buy that brand next time you are in the supermarket, but also that you might go immediately to the fridge to take a beer."
He said it was not possible from the findings to judge the long-term effects of watching alcohol on TV, but added: "It implies that if people watch often, and are exposed to these portrayals often, they drink more. We need more research to discover whether it does indeed have long-term effects."
The researchers argued that banning alcohol commercials might lead to lower levels of at-home drinking.
They added: "Implications of these findings may be that, if moderation of alcohol consumption in certain groups is strived for, it may be sensible to cut down on the portrayal of alcohol in programmes aimed at these groups and the commercials shown in between.
"Another implication may be that in situations in which this is possible (e.g. cinemas), availability of alcohol should be reduced when movies and commercials contain alcohol portrayal and individuals in a group at risk for problematic drinking are present."
Prof Engels’ team is carrying out more research looking at the effects of alcohol and smoking portrayed on TV and in films.
(Source: Mental Health Foundation UK: Alcohol And Alcoholism: March 2009)