COLOMBIA, Mo. — Beer companies have attempted to capitalize on the college market for years by associating their brands with the colleges themselves. A recent study warns this type of marketing will increase underage drinking on many American college campuses.

It’s not hard for consumers to miss examples of these initiatives on the cans of the beer themselves. Promotions such as “fan cans,” along with billboard ads and store displays show how popular brands attempt to link their brews to various campuses. The study found that these associations are effective at enhancing the motivational science of marketed beer brands, particularly for students who identify heavily with their college.

For the study, researchers from the University of Missouri sought to find out if students associate the feelings of trust and safety that usually come from being at a university with the beer brands that use these marketing techniques.

In one experiment, the authors reviewed underage students’ brain activity with an EEG while they looked at a series of images that included beer and water brand logos superimposed on images associated with their university. The students also rated statements intended to show the extent to which they associated their university with their personal identity, such as, “Knowing that I am a student at my university tells others a lot about me.” The researchers conducted a follow-up study 30 days later to assess the participants’ alcohol consumption.

The results revealed that students were drawn to the beer and water brands with logos that appeared over their university’s colors or pictures, compared to those from other schools. The connection was particularly strong among students who felt a strong affiliation to their campus.

A second experiment had students watch footage from one of their school’s basketball games or another school’s game. Ads for beer and water appeared throughout the video, and once again the beverages showed logos from the participants’ university or another team. After the game ended, brain activity was monitored as students were shown the logos that appeared during the broadcast.

Results showed that students responded more favorably to the ads for beer compared to the water ads shown during home-team games. The responses were also stronger for beer ads during a home game as opposed to ones for another team.

“These findings demonstrate the power of advertising to affect largely unconscious responses to products when those products are affiliated with a valued social group, such as students’ university,” explains co-author Bruce Bartholow a psychological scientist at Missouri, in a release by the Association for Psychological Science. “The upshot of all of this is that it could be dangerous to confer feelings of safety to a product that has the potential to cause serious harm, which alcohol is known to do, particularly in this population of underage college students.”

The full study was published November 21, 2017 in the journal Psychological Science.

About Ben Renner

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