There is strong evidence to suggest that exposure to alcohol content or advertising in the media increases uptake and use in adolescents. Alcohol content in the media normalises these behaviours for young people, and young people may imitate behaviours of influential others, such as celebrities.

In the UK, TV programmes are regulated by the Ofcom Broadcasting Code which protects under-18s by restricting alcohol use in programmes made for children and preventing the glamourisation of alcohol use in programmes broadcast before the 9pm watershed or in programmes likely to be viewed by children. Furthermore, ‘paid-for’ product placement of alcohol products is prohibited.

Despite this, alcohol content is widely shown on TV, and our previous research, looking at alcohol content on television, identified that soap operas, or ‘soaps’, contained a lot of alcohol content, and are shown before the 9pm watershed when children and young people are likely to be watching TV with their parents. We decided to investigate how much alcohol content is shown in soaps broadcast on UK TV and explore the amount of young people exposed to this content

In our study, Tobacco and alcohol content in soap operas broadcast on UK television: a content analysis and population exposure, we recorded all episodes of six soap operas (EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Home and Away, and Neighbours) broadcast on UK television during three separate weeks in November and December 2018, and January 2019. We then recorded the amount and types of alcohol content using 1-minute interval coding, which involved recording any alcohol content shown during every 1-minute interval of the programme in the following categories; any alcohol content, actual alcohol use, implied alcohol use, alcohol paraphernalia (such as beer pumps and bottles), and alcohol branding.

We found alcohol content was extremely common, occurring in 95% of the 87 episodes we coded, and in almost a quarter (24%) of 1-minute intervals from soaps (2,222 in total). Alcohol use was seen in 5% of intervals, most often involving beer or cider (three intervals depicted use by a person under the age of 18), implied use was seen in 14% of intervals, with people holding a drink being the most common occurrence, paraphernalia was seen in 18% of intervals, mostly involving beer pumps or bottles, and branding was seen in 5% of intervals, occurring exclusively through beer pumps or labels on bottles. Overall, 45 brands were seen, 30 were genuine branded alcohol products, 15 were fictional. The most commonly seen brand was ‘Makers Mark’.

Interestingly, the two Australian soaps included in our study contained a lower proportion of intervals containing alcohol content compared to UK soaps. Genuine branded alcohol products were only seen in UK soaps.

To estimate the number of young people exposed to this content, we obtained viewing figures and used population estimates combined with alcohol appearances to estimate the number of impressions (number of times alcohol content was seen by a people in that age group). We estimate that the 87 soap episodes delivered 2.1 billion alcohol gross impressions (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.9–2.2) to the UK population, including 113 million (95% CI 99–127) to children aged under 16. There were 568 million (95% CI 534–602) gross impressions of branded alcohol products, including 26.62 million to children (95% CI 23.31–29.92).

Our study shows that soaps broadcast on UK TV are a significant source of exposure to alcohol imagery, including genuine alcohol branding to young people. And current alcohol regulations are failing to prevent a substantial degree of generic and branded exposure. Soaps are likely to be contributing to the normalisation of drinking behaviours in young and future generations, and it is likely that the high occurrence of alcohol use will drive alcohol consumption among young people. This is especially so in relation to branding, with these programmes delivering approximately 600 million branded alcohol impressions to the UK population, including 26 million to children under the age of 16. Whilst Ofcom prohibits paid-for alcohol product placement, programme makers can use ‘props’ (items which they do not receive payment for using) or fictional brands. We noticed that genuine brands were shown in programmes alongside fictional brands, calling into question why genuine alcohol brands are being used in scenes.

Furthermore, many of the brands featured in these programmes are not popular in the UK, with the most prominent brand, ‘Maker’s Mark’, not appearing in a YouGov list of the most popular alcohol brands. The inclusion of these brands in UK soap operas is thus unjustifiable on the grounds of reflecting everyday life.

Tighter scheduling rules, such as showing these programmes after the 9pm watershed or following the example of the Australian soap operas and reducing the reliance on alcohol imagery, could prevent children and adolescents being exposed to this content.

The term ‘soap opera’ originates from the 1930s when daytime serial dramas on the radio were sponsored by soap production companies to advertise their products to housewives. Whilst paid-for alcohol product placement is prohibited, genuine alcohol brands receive widespread exposure from soaps broadcast on UK television. Ofcom should investigate the use of genuine brands in soaps to ensure that the use of these products complies with the broadcasting code.

Written by Alex Barker, research fellow in Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Nottingham.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.