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Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music

Sponsored by

 

Office of National Drug Control Policy


and

Department of Health and Human Services

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

 

Research conducted by



Donald F. Roberts, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication
Stanford University

Lisa Henriksen, Ph.D.


Research Associate
Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention

Peter G. Christenson, Ph.D.


Professor of Communication
Lewis and Clark College

 

with



 

Marcy Kelly, President, Mediascope


Stephanie Carbone, Research Manager
Adele B. Wilson, Project Coordinator

 

April 1999



Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music

 

Table of Contents


Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music ............................................................................................................... I

Table of Contents ....................................................................................................................................................................................... i

Executive Summary ................................................................................................................................................ 1

Illicit Drugs .................................................................................................................................................................................................. 2

Tobacco and Alcohol ................................................................................................................................................................................ 3

Comparing Movies and Music in Equivalent Units of Time ................................................................................................................ 4



Rationale and Background ....................................................................................................................................... 5

Substance Use Among America’s Youth ............................................................................................................................................... 6

Adolescents, Movies, and Music ............................................................................................................................................................ 6

Previous Studies on Substance Use in Media ....................................................................................................................................... 7

Theoretical Context ...................................................................................................................................... 7

Research Methods .................................................................................................................................................. 9

Samples ......................................................................................................................................................................................................... 9

Movies ........................................................................................................................................................ 9

Music ......................................................................................................................................................... 10

Coding Procedures ....................................................................................................................................... 10

Movie Content ............................................................................................................................................................................................. 11

Scenes ........................................................................................................................................................ 12

Major Characters ......................................................................................................................................... 12

Time Intervals .............................................................................................................................................. 13

Lyric Content ............................................................................................................................................................................................... 13

Results ................................................................................................................................................................. 17

General Findings ......................................................................................................................................................................................... 17

Comparing Movies and Songs ........................................................................................................................ 22

Findings Specific to Movies and Songs ............................................................................................................ 24

Movie Findings .......................................................................................................................................................................................... 24

Among Adults ............................................................................................................................................. 31

Among Youth .............................................................................................................................................. 32

Music Findings .......................................................................................................................................................................................... 36

Appendix A: Adolescents, Movies, and Music A- ......................................................................................................... A-1

Movies and Home Video A- ................................................................................................................................................................... A-1

Music A- ................................................................................................................................................... A-2

Appendix B: Review of Media Content Analyses: 1980-1998 B- ..................................................................................... B-1

Annotated Bibliography B- ..................................................................................................................................... B-3

Appendix C: Movie Sample C- ................................................................................................................................. C-1

Appendix D: Music Sample D- ................................................................................................................................. D-1

Composition D- ......................................................................................................................................................................................... D-1

Heavy Metal Sample D- ............................................................................................................................... D-1

Genre Crossovers with Hot-100 D- ................................................................................................................ D-2

Executive Summary

This study examines the frequency and nature of substance use in the most popular movie rentals and songs of 1996 and 1997. The intent was to determine the accuracy of public perceptions about extensive substance use in media popular among youth. Because teenagers are major consumers of movies and music, there is concern about the potential for media depictions of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs to encourage use. For instance, portrayals that tend to legitimize, normalize, trivialize, or glorify substances might suggest to young people that this behavior is without negative consequences. Careful examination of media content is a crucial first step in determining what role media may play in promoting substance use and abuse.

This study examined the 200 most popular movie rentals and 1,000 of the most popular songs from 1996 and 1997. The source for the movie sample selection was the Video Software Dealers Association, which rank orders home video rentals; the music sample was based on song rankings produced by Billboard, Radio and Records magazine, and the College Music Journal. In order to encompass young people’s divergent tastes in music, the sample included top songs from five genres: Country-Western, Alternative Rock, Hot-100 (also referred to as Top-40 or Mainstream), Rap, and Heavy Metal (which includes Hard Rock and Heavy Rock).

Substances included in the study were illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and over-the-counter and prescription medicines. Researchers examined what was used, by whom, how often, under what circumstances, and with what consequences. The study considered whether movies and songs involved substance use as an important theme, contained pro- or anti-use behavior or statements, conveyed limit-setting messages, or associated substance use with positive or negative contexts. Also examined was the extent to which substance use portrayals varied among different types of movies and movies with different ratings.

Findings revealed that 98 percent of movies studied depicted illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco or over-the-counter/prescription medicines. Alcohol and tobacco appeared in more than 90 percent of the movies and illicit drugs appeared in 22 percent. About one-quarter (26 percent) of the movies that depicted illicit drugs contained explicit, graphic portrayals of their preparation and/or ingestion. Substance use was almost never a central theme, and very few movies ever specified motivations for use. Less than one-half (49 percent) of the movies portrayed short-term consequences of substance use, and about 12 percent depicted long-term consequences. Of the 669 adult major characters featured in the 200 movies, 5 percent used illicit drugs, 25 percent smoked tobacco, and 65 percent consumed alcohol. One or more major characters used illicit drugs in 12 percent of the movies, tobacco in 44 percent, and alcohol in 85 percent.

All movies in which illicit drugs appeared received restricted ratings (PG-13 or R). However, 45 percent of the movies in which illicit drugs were used did not receive specific remarks identifying drug-related content from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Fifteen movies depicting illicit drug use (albeit briefly), were not identified as such in the Motion Picture Rating Directory, nor were an additional 10 movies that portrayed drug sales or trafficking.

The major finding from the song analysis is the dramatic difference among music categories, with substance references being particularly common in Rap. Illicit drugs were mentioned in 63 percent of Rap songs versus about 10 percent of the lyrics in the other categories. Similarly, alcohol references appeared in almost half of the Rap lyrics, but in 13 percent or fewer of the other genres. In song lyrics that mentioned illicit drugs, marijuana was by far the most frequent of the illicit drugs mentioned (63 percent). In general, 27 percent of the 1,000 songs contained a clear reference to either alcohol or illicit drugs. There were almost no references to tobacco. Substance use formed a central theme in only 2 percent of the songs and substance use was rarely associated with any motivations or consequences. There were few references that could be considered either explicitly pro-use or anti-use.

Neither movies nor music provided much information about motives for substance use. However, the two media depicted the consequences quite differently, especially for illicit drugs. In movies that portrayed drug use, 48 percent showed one or more consequences of drug use. By contrast, 19 percent of the songs that referred to illicit drugs mentioned any consequence.

Following are additional highlights from the study.

Table of Contents
Illicit Drugs


    • Illicit drugs appeared in about one-fifth of both movies (22 percent) and songs (18 percent).

    • In movies, illicit drug depictions were distributed somewhat evenly across genres: action adventure (10 percent), comedy (13 percent), and drama (18 percent); in music, references to illicit drugs were far more likely to be found in Rap songs
      (63 percent) than in Alternative Rock (11 percent), Hot-100 (11 percent), Heavy Metal (9 percent), or Country-Western (1 percent).



    • Illicit drug use was associated with wealth or luxury in 15 percent of the movies in which drugs appeared, with sexual activity in 6 percent, and with crime or violence in 30 percent; illicit drug use was associated with wealth or luxury in 20 percent of the songs in which drugs appeared, with sexual activity in 30 percent, and with crime or violence in 20 percent.

    • Fifteen percent of the movies that portrayed illicit drug use contained an "anti-use" statement, and 21 percent depicted a refusal to offers of illicit drugs; 6 percent of these songs contained an anti-use statement and 2 percent portrayed a refusal of an offer to use.

    • Consequences of illicit drug use were depicted in about half (48 percent) of the movies in which they appeared and in about one-fifth of the songs (19 percent).
    • In movies depicting illicit drugs, marijuana appeared most frequently (51 percent), followed by powder cocaine (33 percent), hallucinogens, heroin or other opiates, and miscellaneous others (each 12 percent) and crack-cocaine (2 percent); in songs referring to illicit drugs, marijuana appeared most frequently (63 percent), followed by crack-cocaine (15 percent), powder cocaine (10 percent), and hallucinogens, heroin or other opiates, and miscellaneous others (4 percent each).



Table of Contents
Tobacco and Alcohol

    • Alcohol appeared in 93 percent of the movies and 17 percent of the songs; tobacco appeared in 89 percent of the movies but only 3 percent of the songs.

    • In movies, tobacco and alcohol use were consistent across movie genres, with each substance appearing in more than 80 percent of action adventures, comedies, and dramas.

    • In songs, tobacco and alcohol appeared most frequently in Rap music. Seven percent of Rap songs contained a tobacco reference; Alternative Rock was next at 4 percent; and all others were below 2 percent. Alcohol appeared in 47 percent of Rap songs; no other genre rose above 13 percent.

    • Alcohol use was associated with wealth or luxury in 34 percent of the movies in which it appeared, with sexual activity in 19 percent, and with crime or violence in 37 percent; alcohol use was associated with wealth or luxury in 24 percent of the songs in which it was referenced, with sexual activity in 34 percent, and with crime or violence in 13 percent.

    • Of the movies portraying alcohol use, 9 percent contained an anti-use statement and 14 percent depicted a refusal of an offer of alcohol; of the songs, 3 percent contained an anti-use statement and 5 percent a refusal of an offer of alcohol.

    • Consequences of alcohol use were depicted in 43 percent of movies and in 9 percent of songs.


Table of Contents

Comparing Movies and Music in Equivalent Units of Time

The preceding results show the differences in the frequency of substance use portrayals between movies and songs. However, since songs are only a few minutes in length and movies often last 2 or more hours, another useful comparison was made by dividing the movies into 4,372 segments of 5 minutes and equating these shorter intervals to songs. This approach provides a more accurate comparison of the frequency of substance references in equivalent time periods of movie viewing or music listening.


    • Song lyrics contained a greater concentration of illicit drug references than did
      5-minute movie segments. Illicit drugs appeared in nine times more songs (18 percent) than 5-minute movie segments (2 percent).

    • The difference between the frequency of alcohol references in movies and songs was reduced. Alcohol appeared in about half as many songs (17 percent) as 5-minute movie segments (31 percent).


Table of Contents

 

Rationale and Background

This research on substance use in popular movies and music was prompted by two facts: that substance use and abuse constitute a serious problem among America’s youth, and that American teenagers are heavy consumers of motion pictures and popular music. Also influencing the study were widely held public perceptions that media content incorporates a great many messages and images related to substance use, and that it plays a significant role in the creation and perpetuation of America’s substance use problem. Documenting the frequency and nature of substance use portrayals in movies and music is a necessary first step toward understanding the possible connection between symbolic media representations of substances and real-world substance use.

It is important to acknowledge that the mere existence of a certain type of media portrayal does not ensure that audiences will be influenced by it. The ultimate effects of media exposure depend on multiple factors: how individuals interpret messages, the extent to which the messages are contradicted or supported by other sources, the dynamics of parent-child interaction, peer influence, social and cultural background, and so forth. Still, if it is true that substance use appears frequently and is portrayed positively in movies and music, then it is reasonable to hypothesize that these portrayals may be influencing young people to use alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.

On the other hand, if substances are portrayed relatively rarely in movies and music lyrics, or if they are depicted in ways that deglamorize or otherwise discourage use, then it makes little sense to attribute any of society’s substance abuse problems to the media. Equally important, if movies and music do contribute to the problem—that is, if they legitimize, glamorize, or otherwise promote the use of substances—then, logically, they could also help solve the problem by depicting substance use realistically with consequences, or as deviant, unglamorous, and socially unacceptable. In other words, although a variety of other factors may alter the size and nature of media effects, media content clearly matters.

Table of Contents
Substance Use Among America’s Youth

Beyond question, the U.S. faces an epidemic of underage and illegal substance use. In 1997, more than 54 percent of U.S. high school seniors had used an illegal drug at least once, as had more than 29 percent of eighth graders. Among adolescents ages 12 to 17, the average ages of first use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin were 13.7, 14.7, and 14.4 years, respectively. Youth tobacco smoking rates are higher now than at any time in the past 17 years. Two-thirds of U.S. high school students have tried cigarettes and more than one-third currently smoke. Every day another 3,000 American children and teenagers become regular smokers.

Alcohol consumption among adolescents remains at unacceptably high levels. More than 80 percent of U.S. high school students have tried alcohol; in 1997, more than 31 percent of 12th graders, 25 percent of 10th graders, and 14 percent of 8th graders claimed to have consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in the preceding 2 weeks. Perhaps most disturbing, among 12- to 17-year-olds who exhibit no other problem behaviors, those who have used marijuana, alcohol, or cigarettes in the past month are 17 times more likely to consume illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, or LSD than those who have not used these drugs.
Table of Contents

Adolescents, Movies, and Music

Movies and music are extremely popular among adolescents (see Appendix A). Although teens make up only 16 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 26 percent of all movie admissions. Ninety percent of 12- to 20-year-olds report going to movies at least occasionally, and their viewing is not limited to theaters. Sixty-three percent of 9- to 17-year-olds watch at least one rented video per week. Watching videos is one of America’s favorite leisure time activities, with video revenues almost triple that of theatrical box office receipts.

Popular music is the backdrop for much of adolescent life. Teenagers name music listening as their most preferred non-school activity. Moreover, when attention is paid to "background" listening (listening while working, doing homework, driving, etc.), estimates of adolescents’ exposure to music average as high as 4 to 6 hours daily. Recording industry figures indicate that 87 percent of all Rock music sales, 65 percent of Hot-100, 90 percent of R&B and Rap, and 64 percent of Country-Western are accounted for by people age 24 and under.

Table of Contents
Previous Studies on Substance Use in Media

Of the systematic reviews of the frequency of substance use portrayals in media published since 1980, almost all have focused on television (17 studies); only four have looked at movies, and music lyrics have been ignored. For the most part, content analyses have concentrated exclusively on alcohol or tobacco. Illicit drugs have received little attention (two studies), and only one study looked at all three substances simultaneously (see Appendix B). Most studies have examined media portrayals simply by reporting the percentage of programs or movies in which a substance appears or is "consumed." Few studies have attempted to examine the deeper issues explored in this research, such as the types of characters involved in substance use or the consequences attached to use.


Table of Contents

Theoretical Context

A long tradition of empirical research documents the extent to which people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are influenced as a function of the frequency with which media portray particular behaviors, their prevalence within specific populations or contexts, and such elements of the portrayal as motives, consequences, and setting. In particular, cultivation theory argues that audiences perceive behaviors portrayed frequently in the media (e.g., crime, violence, social deviance), as typical or normal and therefore more acceptable. For instance, a recent study of high school students found that frequent talk show viewers dramatically overestimated the frequency of high-risk behaviors, such as teen sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and running away from home. Accordingly, one goal of this study was to determine the frequency with which movies and music lyrics portray substance use behavior, including the proportion of adults and youth, males and females, and antagonists and protagonists who consume illegal drugs, tobacco, or alcohol.

Social learning theory also provided guidance for the study. According to this theory, media messages influence young people by providing explicit, concrete "models" for behaviors (e.g., smoking marijuana), attitudes (e.g., taking an anti-drug point of view), and feelings (e.g., fearing the effects of drug use). Whenever a child or adolescent encounters a media depiction or portrayal as in a movie or song, the potential exists for the behavior to be imitated. Research on social learning theory also demonstrates that the likelihood of imitation depends on the context surrounding the portrayal, particularly consequences attached to the behavior. Generally, perceived negative consequences (e.g., someone dying of an overdose) decrease the probability of a modeling effect, and perceived positive consequences (e.g., gaining social acceptance by drinking at a party) increase the probability.

Further, young audience members are more likely to learn and imitate behaviors performed by attractive, successful, or powerful role models or associated with positive outcomes such as approval, money, power, romance, and sex. Interestingly, even the absence of a negative outcome—such as when a teen character is not punished for using drugs—often has the same influence as an explicit positive consequence or reward. Thus, a second goal of this study was to describe the contexts in which substance use occurs.


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