Chicago Transit Authority Sells Out to Big Alcohol

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There’s a funny disconnect common in the public mindset. We all agree that advertising influences purchases decisions, but we all also think we are personally immune. And it is difficult to prove that dropping one particular advertisement for alcoholic beverages will reduce consumption. However, there is strong evidence that dropping all, or most, exposure to ads does decrease demand.

Two studies are often cited that compare decades of data on alcohol consumption to the amount of advertising allowed. Each compares drinking rates across countries and links those to laws about how alcohol can be marketed. The abstracts can be read here and here. Both show a drop in consumption (one of 5 to 8% and the other as much as 16%) when advertising is banned.

This month, the Chicago Transit Authority went the other way. In dire need of new revenue, they’ve decided to drop their 15 year ban on alcohol advertising. Soon, there will be ads showing something like how great it is to hoist a Heineken or how important you’ll seem if you bring a bottle of Grey Goose.

For an additional cash injection estimated to be about $3 million annually, the CTA may just look at this as being fiscally responsible. And the pro-alcohol-ads side does have its defenders. An article from the CATO institute points out there has never been a direct cause and effect relationship established between alcohol advertising and the decision to purchase. They say that the decision to drink may have nothing to do with exposure to ads and that the commercial messages may just influence what brand someone will buy. And it is true that studies are epidemiologically based – there doesn’t seem to be a way to control exactly what ads someone sees and track behavior, especially when you’d need to do it for a large sample size.

They also point out comparisons between countries ignore cultural drivers. Alcohol consumption is influenced on societal attitudes, and these attitudes may overwhelm any affect from ads.

So, will the CTAs new policy lead to more drinking, more drinking of only those brands advertised, or have no effect whatsoever? There is at least one group of professionals who think the ads will lead to increased sales of alcoholic beverages – they guys paying for them, the companies that produce and sell the booze.

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