Music like rap, hip hop and R&B often contain references to branded alcoholic beverages that are commonly linked to a luxury lifestyle which degrades sexual activity, violence, wealth, partying, and the use of drugs. Researchers at the University in Pittsburgh conducted a study published online in the international journal Addiction that reports that the average U.S. adolescent is heavily exposed to alcohol references in popular music.

Between 2005 and 2007 researchers listened to 793 of the most popular teenage songs and discovered that approximately 25% of songs that make a reference to alcohol also contain a brand name. This is equivalent to hearing 3.4 alcoholic brands per hour of listened music. Considering that the average teenager listens to about 2.5 hours of music daily, the annual exposure they receive to branded alcohol references is therefore quite substantial. The subliminal effects that these songs were linked to in connection with alcohol were more positive (41.5%) than negative (17.1%), i.e. 63.4% associated brands of alcohol with wealth, 51.2% with luxury objects, 39.0% with vehicles, 58.5% with sex, 48.8% with partying, and 43.9% with other drugs.

Considering that brand-name references to alcohol are strongly linked to ‘feel-good’ factors and positive emotions – which is often the goal of advertising – the researchers point out that frequent exposure to brand-name alcohols in young people could be labeled as a form of advertising that could promote early introduction and maintenance of substance use amongst youngsters. Alcoholic brand names appearing in songs like Hennessey Cognac, Grey Goose Vodka and Patron Tequila are the same spirits that have been repeatedly named as ‘the favorite’ amongst underage drinkers and particularly in women.

According to the authors the rather high appearance of brand-name alcohols in popular music could be based on the closer ties between alcohol manufacturers and the music industry, for example Seagram’s branching out to own Universal and Polygram between 1995 and 2001. Since then, numerous individual artists, in particular from the rap and hip hop scene have set up and promoted their own alcohol lines, for example Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (Ciroc Vodka, 2001), Jay-Z (Armadale Vodka, 2002), Lil’ Jon (Little Jonathan Wineries, 2008), Snoop Dogg (Landy Cognac, 2008), Ludacris (Conjure Vodka, 2009) and TI (Remy Martin Cognac, 2010) to name but a few.

The authors point out that in most cases brand-name references in the lyrics appear to be unsolicited and unpaid for by advertisers, however, the line between paid advertising and brand references seems a little blurry. It is hard to distinguish what can count as paid advertising seeing that advertising companies started to retrospectively reward artists with products, sponsorship or endorsement deals once a song with their product name becomes a hit. Just one example is Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy’s hit “Pass the Courvoisier”. Sales jumped up by 18.9% after the song was released in 2002 and subsequently resulted in a lucrative promotional deal between Courvoisier’s parent company, France’s Allied Domecq and Busta and P. Diddy’s management company, Violator.

Although alcohol trade associations, such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), have developed self-regulation codes specifying inappropriate marketing practices that includes a guideline to prevent marketing to underage audiences, rap, hip hop and R&B remains very popular amongst high school students.

Because of the music’s high popularity amongst high school students, the authors argue that advertising campaigns who feature rap artists are inconsistent with the alcohol industry’s self-regulatory code to prevent marketing to underage drinkers.

Written by Petra Rattue