Media influences cut&stick

An issue with the supporting research surrounding media advertising and addictive
behaviours is the methodology used in the studies. It is mainly correlational; this means
although there is a link between the two variables, such as exposure to adverts and
approval of addictive behaviours, it does not mean that there is a causal relationship.
Therefore, adverts may not cause higher approval of addictive behaviours. Further to this,
there are other variables that are not considered in the studies which may influence
approval of addictive behaviours such as the role of parents. If a parent approves of drinking
alcohol, then their adolescent child is more likely to approve of drinking alcohol.
It is also important to highlight here that correlation isn’t the same as causality. Most of the
evidence about media effects and the influence of celebrities on addictive behaviour is
correlational, i.e. exposure to depictions of drug and alcohol use in the media is related to
addictive behaviour. However this does not indicate a causal relationship between exposure
and addiction, merely a link between the two.
It has been suggested that celebrities in the media play a major role in influencing addictive
behaviour. A lot of the media’s attention focuses on celebrities and their behaviours; close
attention is often paid to behaviour regarded as ‘unsuitable’ and ‘reckless’. As a result,
addictions are often heavily emphasised in the media, especially in newspapers and gossip
Sulkunen (2007) investigated the way in which addictive behaviours are represented in films
by celebrities. He collected 61 scenes from 47 films all of which represented various
addictions including alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling and sex. Films about drug-users such
as Trainspotting (1996) and American Beauty (1999) presented scenes of drug competence
and enjoyment of the effects, thus drug-taking was portrayed as a positive behaviour. This
enjoyment was often contrasted with the dullness of ordinary life, and drug use was also
represented as a way of alleviating a particular problem e.g. relationship issues.
However, Boyd (2008) has argued that films frequently do represent the negative
consequences of alcohol and drug dependence, and do not always portray addiction in a
positive and glamorous way. In the USA, filmmakers are provided with script-to-screen
advice about how to represent drug use and addiction in films and are offered financial
incentives if they do so in a negative way.
The media uses the advertising business to influence individuals and to encourage the sale
of tobacco, alcoholic drinks and lottery cards. For example, the first draw of the National
Lottery took place in 1994 and this was widely advertised across Europe on billboards,
magazines and on the TV. Despite this being a soft form of gambling, it still emphasises the
slogan ‘It Could Be You’ suggesting that you have a chance to win, yet it fails to highlight the
high odds of winning.
Supporting research comes from Kramer et al (2009) who assessed the effectiveness of
‘Drinking Less? Do it Yourself!,’ a five-week TV self-help intervention programme designed
to reduce problem drinking. They found that the intervention group was more successful
than a control group in achieving low-risk problem-drinking, a difference that was
maintained at a three-month follow up. This suggests that TV programmes can have a
positive impact on addictive behaviour, in this case reducing the risk of problem-drinking.
Research has suggested that exposure to advertising may lead to addictive behaviour. Atkin
et al (1984) found that 12-17 year olds who had been exposed to higher levels of advertising
were more likely to approve of and engage in under-age drinking. This was explained to be
due to an increased awareness of alcoholic products and indicates that there is a link
between the media and drinking alcohol.
In fact in the USA, the Office for Substance Abuse Protection (OSAP) has developed ethical
guideline materials about drugs for film and television writers. These recommend that
writers should communicate that all illegal drug use is ‘unhealthy and harmful for all
persons,’ that addiction should be presented as a disease, and that abstinence is the ‘viable
choice for everyone.’
Hornik et al (2008) examined the effects of the National Anti-drug Media Campaign but
found it failed to accomplish its goals. This suggests that the positive influence that the
media can have on addictive behaviours is still developing, but this is promising in looking at
building interventions for addiction.
It could be that this portrayal acts as a source of vicarious reinforcement according to the
principles of social learning theory. Individuals observe their role models (celebrities in the
film) smoking and being rewarded for that behaviour (high status actor/actress) and
therefore imitate their behaviour in order to reap the same rewards. As a result, celebrities
in the media can influence the initiation of addictive behaviours.
Furthermore, research into the role of the media on addiction does not account for
individual differences. Although it is apparent that the media may encourage individuals to
begin an addictive behaviour and continue with this addiction, it could be argued that not all
individuals become addicted due to media influences and therefore it cannot be the only
factor involved in influencing addiction. It could be that it makes individuals with a genetic
predisposition to addictive behaviours more vulnerable, i.e. the influence of the media
could trigger the addiction to present itself.
There is also contradictory research regarding the exposure to media advertising and the
likelihood of developing an addiction. Charlton (1986) found that children who could name a
brand of cigarette were no more likely to smoke than those who could not identify a brand
of cigarette. This implies that there is no relationship between advertisements and smoking,
suggesting the influence of the media on addiction is limited. Moreover, the simple
presence of contradictory research indicates that the relationship between the media and
addictive behaviours is complex and conclusions must be drawn with caution.
The influence of the media, such as the television and the internet, can also be used in a
positive way to help promote interventions to addiction, offering support and education to
individuals. For example, government campaigns can have a positive influence in informing
individuals about the negative effects of addictive behaviours.
Advertising of smoking is also linked with addiction; Chapman & Fitzgerald (1982) found
that under-age smokers reported a preference for heavily advertised brands. This indicates
that advertisements in the media have a large influence on addictive behaviours, such as
smoking, especially in young adults.
There is more supporting evidence for the influence of celebrities on addiction and the role
of social learning theory. Waylen et al (2011) examined 360 of the top US box office films
released between 2001 and 2005, including those that depicted smoking (e.g. Bridget Jones’
Diary). They found that teenagers who watched films showing actors smoking were more
likely to start smoking themselves, supporting the idea that the initiation of smoking can be
influenced by vicarious reinforcement.