It seems that in every new film that hits the big screen there is a major character that has an alcoholic drink in their hand during each scene, but how does this affect the audience’s emotional involvement with the leading man or woman? A study conducted at Radboud University Nijmegen has revealed that the glamorization and positive portrayal of drinking in movies contributes to the viewer’s attitude towards alcohol, causing them to view it in a more positive light.

"Although the longer-term effects of alcohol portrayals in movies and ads have been examined, very few studies have tested experimentally the immediate causal and direct effects of on-screen alcohol portrayals on alcohol consumption or cognitions," corresponding author from Radboud University Nijmegen, Renske Koordeman said in a statement. "The current findings add to the literature by providing initial evidence that alcohol portrayals in movies and advertisements also immediately affect cognitions of young people."

Kooderman and her colleagues from the university recruited 84 male and 75 female college students to participate in the study. A total of 159 participants were shown eight different clips from movies that either presented alcohol use in a negative or positive light. A control group was set up where students were exposed to clips with no alcohol content. Researchers gauged each student’s emotional involvement, also known as “transportation,” and overall attitude towards the film.

On average, participants developed a positive attitude and were transported by movie clips with portrayals of alcohol, either negative or positive, compared to the same clips that had no alcohol. Surprisingly, they were more transported into movie clips that displayed alcohol in a negative light instead of a positive one. The students were even more likely to endorse positive attitudes towards films that featured positive alcohol portrayal rather than clips with a negative portrayal of alcohol.

"Viewers are often not aware of alcohol portrayals in movies," Koordeman explained. "Product placement is more subtle than general ads, occurring when a company pays movie makers to portray its brand in a movie. Strategies to embed advertisements in a movie context with appealing actors – and without viewers' conscious processing of the intentions of the message – might be even more powerful than general advertising strategies since the message is not perceived as advertising. In addition, people are probably more involved in a movie than in an advertisement break, which is often used to do something else."

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 18 million people in the United States suffer from an alcohol use disorder, classified at alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse. Researchers from this study commented that advertisement restrictions similar to the ones placed on tobacco products are not considered for alcohol use which is more self-regulated by the industry. They hope that future marketing policies will provide stricter rules and regulations governing the use of alcoholic images in the media.

"It is my understanding that alcohol portrayals are depicted in the majority of movies, 80 to 95 percent, and that they are mostly framed or portrayed in a positive manner," said  Marloes Kleinjan, an assistant professor of developmental psychopathology at Radboud University Nijmegen. "Exposure to alcohol portrayals in the media – including movies, but also advertisements and digital media such as Facebook – can encourage drinking in young people. Since movie characters can be regarded as role models by young people, the manner in which these characters portray alcohol use in a movie might have an impact on the beliefs and attitudes toward alcohol use by youngsters themselves."

Source: Anschutz D, Engels R, Koorderman R, et al. The Effect of Positive and Negative Movie Alcohol Portrayals on Transportation and Attitude Toward the Movie. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2014.