Alcohol content in YouTube music videos breaks industry codes of practice, new study finds

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06 Sep 2016 10:00:00.000

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“F**k it! Let’s get to drinking – poison our livers!” — some of the lyrics in YouTube music videos which researchers at the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies say may harmfully influence adolescents in Britain.

The new research is an extension of previous work which found that UK teenagers were heavily exposed to images of alcohol and tobacco in YouTube music, effectively glamourising the habits and promoting underage drinking and smoking.

Now the researchers have specifically studied the portrayal of alcohol content in popular YouTube music videos, analysing song lyrics and visual imagery in 49 UK Top 40 videos previously found to contain alcohol content. The study is published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

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They found that content involving alcohol was also associated with sexualised imagery or lyrics and the objectification of women, and that alcohol was linked to personal image, lifestyle and sociability. Some videos also showed encouragement of excessive drinking including those with branded alcohol, with no negative consequences to the drinker shown.

Psychologist Dr Joanne Cranwell, from the UKCTS, based at The University of Nottingham said: “Adolescent alcohol consumption, including binge drinking, is a significant health problem in the UK. Among young people particularly it is also linked to criminal behaviour, unprotected sex, progression to illegal drug use and is a risk factor for alcohol dependence in later life. In the UK 11% of 15-16 year olds out of a sample of 2000 had had sex under the influence of alcohol and regretted it and almost 10% of boys and 12% of girls reported having unsafe sex after drinking.

“We know that alcohol imagery and references in advertising, films, TV and music videos are a risk factor for uptake of drinking in young people but we wanted to pin down the exact extent and type of content in the Official Singles Chart UK Top 40 and the Vodafone Big Top 40 music chart to explore the true extent to which alcohol is being portrayed and whether UK alcohol industry advertising codes of practice are being violated.”

Glamourising drinking

Three main themes emerged from the research:

• Sexualised imagery or lyrics and the objectification of women — Some videos portrayed women in highly sexualised ways with alcohol used as a prop or key element. For example, ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke, which shows women in underwear dancing around the male singers, all of who are fully clothed. At one point the lead singer pours and drinks branded Remy Martin™ cognac while the lyrics repeat the phrase: “You know you want it”, the implication of which is evident in a subsequent lyric: “I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

• Alcohol and image, lifestyle and sociability — This theme shows that alcohol was portrayed as a marker of success and wealth. Amongst other brands, the lyrics in ‘Royals’ by Lorde that include branded Grey Goose™ vodka and Crystal™ champagne portray brands as being things some people appear to be preoccupied with: “But every song's like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin' in the bathroom. …. But everybody's like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash....”

• Drinking to excess — Whilst some videos presented seemingly innocuous drinking in social gatherings others included substantial use of behavioural and verbal messages that encourage drinking to excess or drunkenness, again without acknowledging any negative consequences.  Examples include lyrics such as “One more shot, another round, end of the day you’re going down” (‘Timber’ by Pitbull), the implication of which is ‘drinking until you drop’.

The study also found that the overt use of celebrity endorsement or brand ambassadors of alcohol products in music videos appears to contravene voluntary codes of practice. The music artists involved in this direct promotion in the video sample include Robin Thicke, who is described as a ‘brand ambassador’ for Remy Martin™, Jay Z, who is a ‘brand ambassador’ for D’USSE™ and Icona Pop who are the ‘brand face’ of Absolut Tune™.

The UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies is calling for new measures to try to curb the inclusion of smoking and drinking content in YouTube music videos, which unlike TV and film, are not classified according to age suitability. Artists and music video producers should change their policy of effectively glamourising and normalising excessive drinking and linking it with sexual attractiveness and luxury lifestyle. The research claims several alcohol companies have adopted marketing strategies that contravene their own advertising codes of practice and calls for the music industry to implement new standards to reduce the use of branded and generic alcohol content in videos. 

The researchers say the UK Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network is failing in its remit to police the YouTube music industry, particularly in tackling videos that use alcohol brands in content that is not developed, sponsored or distributed by the companies themselves.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK for research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Joanne Cranwell in the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Control Studies, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 823 1380,

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