Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music Sponsored by


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Research Methods


The samples for this content analysis consisted of the 200 most popular movie rentals and 1,000 of the most popular songs from 1996 and 1997.

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The Video Software Dealers Association rank-ordered list of home video rental income identified the 200 most popular movies for 1996 and 1997. Nine movie titles appeared in the top 100 for both years. In these cases, the titles remained in the year in which they ranked highest, and alternate titles were selected (beginning at rank 101) in order to derive a sample of 100 different movies for each year (see Appendix C). To simplify sample descriptions and analyses, movies were categorized into three genres: action adventure (30 percent); comedy, including romantic and dark/macabre comedies (35 percent); and drama (35 percent).

The sample included films with Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings: G
(2 percent), PG (17 percent), PG-13 (33 percent), and R (48 percent).The Motion Picture Rating Directory, published by the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration, noted drug-related content in 20 of the 200 movies. The absence of trade association data specific to teenage audiences, and the proportion of R-rated movies in this sample, raises some question about young audiences’ exposure to the movies included in this study. According to recent teenage audience data, this study includes all 20 of the most popular video rentals among teenagers for 1997, some of which were
R-rated. The audience data suggest that some R-rated videos in this sample drew between

4 percent and 35 percent of the teenage audience (1.2 to 10.9 million). Since no movie, no matter what the rating, drew more than 36 percent of the teenage audience surveyed, it is reasonable to conclude that young people’s exposure to R-rated movies in this study is relatively high.

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Because adolescents tend to listen to particular types of music rather than simply to music in general, the songs in the music sample were distributed evenly among five favorite genres (see Appendix D): Country-Western; Alternative Rock; Hot-100 (or Top-40); Rap; and Heavy Metal.

Just as with the video sample, considerable yearly and genre "crossover" of titles complicated the picture. For example, several hits that made the top 100 in Rap for 1996 also made the top 100 for 1997. In addition, a number of songs appeared on the charts for more than one genre. To ensure a total of 1,000 unique titles overall, alternates from the charts were selected when crossover occurred (see Appendix D for explanation).

Music industry charts were used to establish the lists of top songs for the various categories. For four of the music genres—Country-Western, Hot-100, Alternative Rock, and Rap—the year-end rankings from Billboard magazine were used to establish the sample (Billboard uses the term "Modern Rock" to refer to Alternative Rock music). Since Billboard does not publish a Heavy Metal or Heavy Rock chart, a hybrid list was constructed by combining year-end singles from Radio & Records Magazine’s "Active Rock" chart and selections from College Music Journal’s top "Loud Rock" albums (for further explanation see Appendix D).

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Coding Procedures

Describing substance portrayals in movies, which are visual and verbal, and music lyrics, which are only verbal, required different procedures. Specially trained coders watched all 200 movies or read the lyrics of all 1,000 songs included in the study, paying particular attention to the following:

    • Alcohol (beer, malt liquor, wine/champagne, hard liquor/mixed drinks, including fictional name brands).

    • Tobacco (cigarettes, cigarillos, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, including fictional name brands).

    • Illicit drugs (controlled substances, such as marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, PCP, crank, LSD).

    • Over-the-counter medicines (legally purchased, such as aspirin, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, cough and cold serums, nicotine gum/patches).

    • Prescription medication (self-administered prescription medicines, such as sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, anti-depressants, pain relievers).

    • Inhalants (legal, ordinary household products used for the purpose of getting high, such as paint thinner, glue, lighter fluid, spray paint, aerosols, helium and laughing gas, also used to propel commercial whipping cream).

    • Unidentified pills (any pills or capsules of unknown origin or purpose).

Coders were instructed to ignore medicines administered to patients by medical personnel in a hospital or other settings. Also excluded were fictitious drugs and substances with unrealistic, seemingly impossible effects, such as transforming one character into another, or permitting a character to experience other people's memories.
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Movie Content

All content analyses are fundamentally concerned with counting and describing particular content. In this study, counting procedures differentiated substance use from substance appearance. Substance use included explicit portrayals of consumption (drinking alcohol, lighting up or puffing on a cigarette, snorting cocaine, injecting drugs, swallowing pills), and depictions that implied consumption, such as buying, ordering, accepting, or possessing alcohol, tobacco, or other substances. Substance appearance was noted whenever substances or related paraphernalia (references to brands of alcohol, tobacco, or over-the-counter medicines, generic bar or cocktail signs, ashtrays, syringes, and the like) were seen, absent any indication of use. In either case, the counting procedure provided a conservative estimate of substance use, since it did not include every verbal reference. For example, a conversation between two characters recalling some past substance-use episode ("Boy, did I tie one on last week") was not coded.

In addition to counting the proportion of movies in which substances appeared, coding procedures attempted to describe dominant messages about substance use. Specifically, coders identified whether movies:

    • Involved substance use or trafficking as important themes.

    • Conveyed pro-use messages by expressing desire or longing, or advocating positive attributes of substances and their use.

    • Modeled anti-use behavior by including characters that expressly refused offers to drink, smoke, or take drugs, or by statements that emphasized rules that govern use or characterize use or users in negative ways.

    • Conveyed limit-setting messages that restricted where, when, and how often alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs were consumed.

    • Associated substance use with positive (e.g., parties, humor) or negative (e.g., crime or violence, rape, risky behaviors) contexts.

    • Depicted consequences of substance use to self or others that are short-term (closely linked, brief outcomes) or long-term (removed in time, enduring).

Consequences included any outcomes linked to substance use that showed what can happen to the body when substances are consumed (e.g., coughing, vomiting, blurred vision), or other significant outcomes such as social disapproval, physical harm, or arrest. Coders indicated whether consequences pertained to substance users and/or others (e.g., a woman is beaten when her husband has too much to drink).

The process of counting and describing movie content was applied to several distinct elements: the movie as a whole (as explained above), particular kinds of scenes, major characters, and 5-minute time intervals.

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A closer examination of substance use portrayals was provided by a detailed analysis of two types of scenes: 1) those depicting illicit drug use by any character, and 2) those depicting substance use by characters known to be under 18 or who appeared to be high school age or younger. Scenes were defined as a series or sequence of dialogue and action at a single location or point in time. These scene analyses examined why substances were used, in what contexts, and with what, if any, consequences. Specifically, coders identified:

    • Apparent motivations for use.

    • Physical and social settings of use.

    • Positive or negative associations with use.

    • Short- or long-term consequences of use (to self or others).

Because scenes showing substance use by an underage character and those depicting illicit drug use by any character are not mutually exclusive, a few scenes are included in both sets of results.
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Major Characters

Determining the prevalence of substance use among movie characters required defining a relevant population of characters, and counting who did and did not use illicit drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. Previous studies have estimated prevalence by coding two characters from each movie (the major protagonist and antagonist)., This procedure, however, describes a population composed of a disproportionately large number of antagonists and eliminates many characters in significant, potentially influential roles. For purposes of this study, major characters were defined as those with significant screen time and who were essential to the story.

All 748 major characters (adults and youth) were described in terms of role (protagonist vs. antagonist), gender, apparent age group, occupation, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In the absence of specific information about a character’s ethnic background, apparent ethnicity was coded. Socioeconomic status (SES) was coded by identifying characters who were obviously well-to-do (high SES) or destitute (low SES). All other characters were coded with a moderate SES.

The prevalence of substance use was determined by calculating the proportion of major characters who used illicit drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. In addition, the number of major characters experiencing consequences of use, attempting to quit, or describing themselves as former users, was noted.

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Time Intervals

Since movies and scenes vary in length (and characters differ in screen time and importance), none of the preceding coding units—movies, scenes, characters—is ideally suited to studying the frequency of substance use within movies. Rather, this goal is best served by defining and employing a standard coding unit that remains constant from one movie to the next. Therefore, the frequency of substance appearance was described for all 5-minute intervals of the movies, a procedure that is typical of other content analyses identified in Appendix B. The presence or absence of illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other legal drugs was coded for each 5-minute interval, beginning with the audio and/or video that uniquely identified each movie (typically, after the credits for production/distribution studios) and ending when final credits rolled.

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Lyric Content

Coders analyzed written transcripts of lyrics for the presence and nature of substance references. The coding process was similar in many respects to that used for movies, as substances of interest were identical and many of the variables overlapped, at least in broad conceptual terms. The different nature of the two media, however, led to certain differences in both coding procedures and variables.

Because lyrics contain no visual information and generally lack the narrative structure, time element, and identifiable cast of characters contained in movies, the basic unit of analysis was the complete lyric. Nothing in the music analysis corresponded to the separate analysis of movies according to scene, time interval, and characters. No attempt was made to analyze the demographic characteristics of individuals. In addition, the complete reliance on verbal cues in the analysis of song lyrics precluded the examination of physical settings, location of the "action," the historical time frame, and so on.

Conversely, the nature of contemporary popular music and youth culture led to the inclusion of certain issues for the music analysis but not for movies. For example, based on the perceived link between Heavy Metal music and Satanic/occult beliefs, music lyrics were examined for any association between such beliefs and substance use.

The first task in the analysis of lyrics was simply to identify any verbal references to illicit drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Given the ever-changing slang that characterizes both popular music and the drug culture, this process was not as simple as it may sound. Whereas many of the substance-related terms encountered in music are obvious ("champagne," "marijuana," "stoned," "cigarette," and so on), it is difficult to interpret contemporary slang terms. Marijuana, for instance, goes by a variety of street names—"blunt," "chronic," "ganja," "lah lah," "Phillies," "sinsemilla," and "Thai," to name a few. This problem was addressed by employing coders familiar with popular music and its terminology and by consulting published sources (many on the World Wide Web) and experts in the music and substance abuse treatment communities.

Substance references were recorded at several different levels:

    • Figurative use of language (e.g., "I’m high on you").

    • Mention of places or activities often or almost always associated with substance use ("painting the town," "bar-hopping").

    • Literal references to substances or their use ("I’m drinkin’ tonight").

Literal references were further broken down into substance categories (illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco) and specific substances within those categories, then judged in terms of whether they were:

    • "Wallpaper" references in which terminology appears but is not associated with past, present, or intended use ("the girl on the Budweiser billboard").

    • Behavior or attitudes related to past, present, or intended use—that is, references made in the "normal" context of consumption ("I got wasted last night").

These categories and distinctions are not mutually exclusive; many songs contained figurative and literal mentions, wallpaper references, and actual use.

For each identified substance, a variety of contextual issues were examined. As with the movie coding, lyrics were examined for references to dealing or trafficking, pro-use and anti-use messages, refusal behavior, limit setting, brand information, motivations, consequences, and associations with use. Motivations and consequences were broken down into specific types. Motivations included peer pressure, mood management (cheering up), relief of troubles or depression, and addiction or craving. Consequences were scored on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (very negative) to 5 (very positive), with 3 being neutral. In addition, lyrics were examined for consequences within each of these separate categories: mental, emotional, physical, social, legal, monetary/material.

Lyrics were coded for references to intoxication, expressions of a desire to quit use or seek treatment, and condemnation of the effects of substance use on the community at large. They were also reviewed for the presence of associations with sex/romance, rape, violence and crime, driving or other high-risk behaviors, images of wealth or luxury, expressions of bravado or power, and suicide. At the end of the process, coders were asked to consider the lyric as a whole and to judge, on the

5-point scale, whether the portrayal or image of substances or their use was positive or negative.
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Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music explored the frequency and context of tobacco, alcohol, and legal and illicit drugs in the most popular home video rentals and music recordings of 1996 and 1997. Key questions asked in the study were: How do popular movies and songs portray these substances? How often is their use depicted? Who uses and in what context? What are the motivations and consequences?

It is important to note that substance use was differentiated from substance appearance in the analysis of movies. Substance use included portrayals of actual consumption or implied consumption; appearance was noted when substance related signs or paraphernalia (billboard ads, ashtrays, cocktail glasses, liquor bottles, syringes) were seen.

The movie analysis examined movies as a whole, scenes, characters, and time intervals. These intervals, 5-minute segments from the films, enabled an analysis of the frequency with which illicit drugs, tobacco, and alcohol appeared within movies of different lengths. They also provided more equivalent units of time so that comparisons could be made between individual songs and movies.

This section begins with some general findings that compare how movies and music treated substances.

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General Findings

A. What proportion of movies and songs depict substances?

    1. Movies were almost four times as likely as music lyrics to depict substances of some kind (98 percent v. 27 percent, respectively). (Figure 1)
    2. Alcohol (93 percent) and tobacco (89 percent) were about four times more likely than illicit drugs (22 percent) to appear in movies; alcohol (17 percent) and illicit drugs (18 percent) were over six times more likely than tobacco (3 percent) to appear in songs. (Figure 1)

    3. Alcohol and tobacco appeared in almost all movies (93 percent and 89 percent); illicit drugs appeared in over one-fifth (22 percent). Alcohol and illicit drugs appeared in just under 20 percent of all songs; tobacco was almost non-existent (3 percent). (Figure 1)


B. When illicit drug use is depicted in movies and in songs, with what is it associated? (Figure 2)

Percentages are based on the 33 movies in which illicit drug use appeared and the 156 songs in which illicit drug use was mentioned.

    1. Illicit drugs were associated with wealth or luxury in 15 percent of movies and 20 percent of songs.

    2. Sexual activity was associated with illicit drugs in 6 percent of movies and 30 percent of songs.

    3. Crime and violence occurred with illicit drugs in about 30 percent of movies and 20 percent of songs.

    4. Movies were more likely than music to mention consequences of illicit drug use (48 percent vs. 19 percent).

    5. Anti-use statements for illicit drugs were more common in movies (15 percent) than in songs (6 percent). Refusal to take illicit drugs when offered was also more common in movies (21 percent) than in songs (2 percent).

C. When alcohol use is depicted in movies and songs, with what is it associated? (Figure 3)

Percentages are based on the 183 movies that portrayed alcohol use and the 149 songs that mentioned alcohol use.

    1. Wealth or luxury were associated with alcohol in about one-third of movies (34 percent) and in about one-fourth of songs (24 percent).

    2. Sexual activity was associated with alcohol in 19 percent of movies and 34 percent of songs.


    1. Crime or violence occurred along with alcohol consumption in more than one-third of movies (37 percent) and in 13 percent of songs.

    2. Drinking alcohol was more typically associated with consequences in movies than in songs. Forty-three percent of movies, but few songs (9 percent), depicting alcohol use mentioned consequences.


    1. Anti-use statements seldom appeared in either movies or songs depicting alcohol. Nine percent of movies and 3 percent of songs contained anti-use statements; 14 percent of movies and 5 percent of songs depicted refusals to offers of alcohol.

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Comparing Movies and Songs

At first glance, the preceding results appear to show large differences in the frequency of substance use portrayals between movies, where substances appeared often, and the lyrics of popular songs, in which substances appeared considerably less often. Illicit drugs appeared in about one-fifth of the movies, and alcohol and tobacco in almost all. Illicit drugs and alcohol also appeared in about one-fifth of the lyrics, but references to tobacco were virtually non-existent.

However, it should also be noted that individual songs are only a few minutes long, while movies often last 2 hours or more, raising a legitimate question about whether a single drug reference in a brief song should be compared with a single drug reference in an extended film. This time difference was taken into account by dividing movies into 5-minute segments (still somewhat longer than most popular songs) and comparing these shorter intervals to songs. Analysis using this method produced a very different pattern of results, showing that the prevalence of alcohol in songs was higher than it had originally appeared and that song lyrics contained a greater concentration of illicit drug references than movies (see Figures 1 and 4). Specifically, when 5-minute movie segments were compared with songs:

    • Illicit drugs appeared nine times more frequently in lyrics (18 percent) than in
      5-minute movie segments (2 percent).

    • Alcohol appeared almost twice as often in movie segments (31 percent) as in songs (17 percent).

    • Tobacco appeared eight times as frequently in movie segments (24 percent) as in songs (3 percent).

Considering that young people are likely to listen to at least 25 to 30 hours of music a week, the results indicate they may easily encounter 40 or 50 songs with alcohol or illicit drug references in that time.

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Findings Specific to Movies and Songs

Because the nature of movies (audio-visual) and song lyrics (verbal), as well as the frequency and nature of substance use depicted in each, are so fundamentally different, the findings for the two media, for the most part, are presented separately.

In the following pages, text and figures describing the movie analysis specify whether findings pertain to:

    • All 200 movies.

    • Movies that portray illicit drugs (43), tobacco use (172), or alcohol use (183).

    • 5-minute segments of movies.

    • Major characters.

    • Scenes portraying illicit drug use by any character, major or minor.

    • Scenes portraying substance use by characters who appear to be underage.

Results for song lyrics are described at three different levels of analysis:
    • All 1,000 songs.

    • Approximately 200 songs in each of five genres.

    • Songs that refer to illicit drug (156) and alcohol use (149).

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