Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music Sponsored by

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Table of Contents

Movie Findings

D. How do movies depict substance use?

Percentages are based on all 200 movies.


    1. Few movies were "substance free;" only 5 of the 200 movies portrayed no substance use whatsoever (about 2 percent). Illicit drugs appeared in 22 percent of the movies, tobacco in 89 percent, alcohol in 93 percent, and other legal drugs (prescription or over-the-counter medicines) in 29 percent. (Figure 1) [Types of illicit drugs, tobacco, and alcohol that appeared are presented in Figure 8.]

    2. Movies were rarely about substance use. Use constituted an important theme in only 6 percent of the movies.

    3. One or more major characters used illicit drugs in 12 percent of the movies, tobacco in 44 percent, and alcohol in 85 percent.

    4. Some movies (15 percent) portrayed substance use by characters who appeared to be younger than 18 years old. These characters used illicit drugs in 3 percent of the movies, tobacco in 8 percent, and alcohol in 9 percent.

    5. Negative statements about substance use (advocating abstinence or criticizing drinking, smoking, or drug use) occurred in 31 percent of the movies. Eleven percent contained statements about limits on how much, how often, where, or when substances were consumed; most of these comments referred to tobacco.

    6. Positive statements about substance use (e.g., expressing longing, desire, or favorable attributes of use) occurred in 29 percent of all movies. Most pro-use statements referred to alcohol.

    7. About half (49 percent) of all movies depicted one or more short-term consequences of substance use.
    8. Only 7 percent of movies depicted long-term consequences; an additional 5 percent included dialogue from which long-term consequences could be inferred (e.g., references to alcoholism or to characters who overdosed).


E. How often are movies rated for substance content?

Percentages are based on 38 G and PG movies, 65 PG-13 movies, and 97 R-rated movies.



    1. All movies in which illicit drugs appeared received restricted ratings (PG-13 or R). However, only half of the movies (55 percent) in which illicit drugs were used received specific remarks for drug-related content. 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.

    2. Illicit drugs appeared in 33 percent of the movies rated R, 17 percent of those rated PG-13, and in no movie with a G or PG rating.

    3. Illicit drugs were used in 20 percent of the movies rated R and 17 percent of those rated PG-13; they were not used in G or PG movies. (Figure 5)

    4. Tobacco was used in 79 percent of G or PG movies, 82 percent of PG-13 movies, and 92 percent of R-rated movies. (Figure 5)

 

    1. Alcohol was used in 76 percent of G or PG movies, and in virtually all PG-13 (97 percent) and R-rated movies (94 percent). (Figure 5)

F. To what extent do different movie genres portray substance use?

Percentages are based on 60 action adventures, 69 comedies, and 71 dramas.


    1. Illicit drugs appeared in more dramas (30 percent) than action adventures (17 percent) or comedies (17 percent).


    2. Illicit drugs were used in 10 percent of action adventures, 13 percent of comedies, and 18 percent of dramas. (Figure 6)

    3. Tobacco use was consistently high across the three genres: 83 percent of action adventures, 89 percent of comedies, and 89 percent of dramas. (Figure 6)

    4. Alcohol use, like tobacco use, was consistently high across the three genres: 88 percent of action adventures, 93 percent of comedies, and 93 percent of dramas. (Figure 6)

    5. Twelve percent of action adventures, 17 percent of comedies, and 20 percent of dramas portrayed characters using over-the-counter or prescription medicines. (Figure 6)

G. How frequently do substances appear within movies?

As noted earlier, in order to compare substance use in movies of different lengths, the movies were first divided into 5-minute intervals, yielding a total of 4,372 intervals. The presence or absence of each substance was recorded for every interval. The proportion of intervals in which each substance appeared was then calculated.



    1. Illicit drugs appeared infrequently—in 2 percent of all intervals.

    2. Tobacco appeared in 24 percent.



 


    1. Alcohol appeared in 31 percent.
    2. Other legal drugs appeared in 3 percent.


Table 1
Frequency of Substance Appearance in Movies by Genre and MPAA Rating

 

Genre

MPAA Rating

Overall


Action Adventure

Comedy

Drama

G/PG

PG-13

R


Illicit Drugs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

N

10

12

21

0

11

32

43

Average

13%

11%


7%



8%

10%

10%

Maximum

26%

44%

17%



12%

44%

44%

Tobacco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

N

54

60

64

30

56

92

178

Average

24%

25%

32%

25%

24%

30%

27%

Maximum


54%

95%

88%

79%

88%

95%

95%

Alcohol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

N

55

64

67

29

63

94

186

Average

29%

37%

33%

27%

31%

37%

33%

Maximum

90%

80%

100%

80%

80%


100%

100%

Table 1 conveys information about the frequency with which illicit drugs, tobacco, and alcohol appeared in 5-minute movie segments. N indicates the number of movies in which a substance appeared at least once. The Average indicates the likelihood of seeing a substance in any 5-minute interval. The Maximum describes the most pervasive case—the movie in which a substance appeared most often. For example, the numbers in the far right column show that in 43 movies in which illicit drugs appeared, the probability of seeing an illicit drug in any 5-minute segment was low (10 percent); in the worst case, illicit drugs appeared in almost half of the intervals (44 percent).

H. How common is substance use among major characters? (Figure 7)

This section describes the prevalence of substance use—that is, the proportion of major characters that used illicit drugs, tobacco, alcohol, or other substances (such as prescription or over-the-counter medicines). The results are presented separately for adult and young characters.

 
Table of Contents

Among Adults

Of the 669 adult major characters, most were male (67 percent), between ages 18 and 39 (71 percent), and middle class (69 percent). The majority were white (81 percent), followed by African American (13 percent), Latino (3 percent), Asian (2 percent), and other groups (less than 1 percent). Only 21 percent occupied the role of antagonist or villain; the remainder were coded as protagonists.


  1. Thirty-three adult characters (5 percent) used illicit drugs, 25 percent smoked,
    65 percent consumed alcohol, and 5 percent used other substances.

  2. Characters consumed more than one substance (often at the same time): 70 percent who smoked also drank alcohol; 85 percent who used illicit drugs also used tobacco or alcohol.

  3. Few major characters described themselves as having quit or having tried to quit using illicit drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Five characters described themselves as former drug users and one quit a drug habit during the movie. Five characters described themselves as former drinkers and three as former smokers. One character attempted to quit smoking (and she failed).

  4. More white than African-American characters used illicit drugs in these movies. Although African Americans represented a small portion of all major characters, their proportional illicit drug use was higher (10 percent) than among white characters
    (5 percent). Use by characters of other ethnic groups was not portrayed.

  5. Illicit drug use was more prevalent among characters with low socioeconomic status (18 percent) than middle (4 percent) or high socioeconomic status (5 percent), and more prevalent among adults under 40 than among older adults (6 percent v.
    2 percent).

  6. Illicit drug use was unrelated to gender or role; drug users were as likely to be male as female, protagonist as antagonist.

  7. Smoking was more prevalent among men than women (28 percent v. 21 percent) and more prevalent among antagonists than protagonists (38 percent v. 22 percent).
  8. Smoking was more common among characters with low (36 percent) and high socioeconomic status (31 percent) than middle (23 percent) but unrelated to characters’ age or ethnicity.


  9. Alcohol consumption was more prevalent among characters with lower (55 percent) and middle socioeconomic status (54 percent) than with high (44 percent). Alcohol use was unrelated to characters’ gender, age, ethnicity, or role.

  10. Drinking and smoking "on the job" was not uncommon—19 percent of characters who used alcohol and 42 percent of those who used tobacco did so at their workplace or while "on duty."

  11. Forty-two percent of major characters who used illicit drugs, 7 percent who smoked, and 16 percent who drank experienced some consequence of their use.

Table of Contents

Among Youth

The 79 major characters who appeared to be under 18 were primarily white (85 percent), middle class (71 percent), and protagonists (92 percent). About half of these young characters were female (47 percent).


  1. Of the characters who appeared to be under 18, 8 percent used illicit drugs, 17 percent smoked, 22 percent drank alcohol, and 4 percent used other substances. (Figure 7)

  2. Of six major characters in this age group who used illicit drugs, five were seen smoking marijuana and one claimed to have used crack.

  3. Of the young characters who smoked, 39 percent also drank alcohol. Smoking was slightly more common among girls than boys (19 percent vs. 14 percent); other substance use was unrelated to gender.

  4. None of the young characters who smoked marijuana or cigarettes experienced any apparent consequences of their use.

  5. Forty percent of the young characters who consumed alcohol experienced one or more consequences from drinking.

I. How do movies portray illicit drug use?

Percentages are based on 43 movies in which illicit drugs appeared or 67 scenes that portrayed illicit drug use by any character.


  1. The appearance of illicit drugs was not always synonymous with use. Characters used illicit drugs in 77 percent of the movies in which illicit drugs appeared.

  2. Marijuana was found more frequently (51 percent) than any other illegal drug, followed by powdered cocaine (33 percent). Heroin, crack cocaine, and other illicit drugs appeared infrequently. (Figure 8).

  3. Few movies emphasized the illegal nature of drug use; only 28 percent associated illicit drugs with crime or violence.



  1. About one-fourth (26 percent) of the movies contained explicit, graphic portrayals of preparing and/or using illicit drugs. About one-fourth (23 percent) showed characters refusing specific invitations to use.

  2. Twenty-six percent portrayed illicit drug use in humorous contexts, 16 percent at parties, and 12 percent in wealthy, luxurious settings.

  3. Five movies contained negative statements (advocating abstinence or criticizing illicit drug use) and five contained positive statements about drug use.

  4. Marijuana use was portrayed most frequently (in 57 percent of the scenes), followed by heroin or other opiates (18 percent), and powder cocaine (13 percent). The remaining 12 percent of scenes involved a variety of other illicit substances, including crank, crack, LSD, and PCP.

  5. Most of the scenes (69 percent) showed illicit drug use by at least one major character.
  6. Most scenes (72 percent) portrayed no clear motive for illicit drug use. When a motive was evident, addiction was the reason in 10 percent of the scenes, stress relief or mood management in another 10 percent, and circumstances of the plot in the remaining 8 percent of the scenes.


  7. Few scenes (17 percent) showed people using illicit drugs while alone. Most portrayals emphasized the social nature of illicit drug use, more often showing drug use by groups of two or three characters in private rather than at gatherings such as parties or other celebrations.

  8. Some scenes associated illicit drug use with risk-taking activities such as crime or violence (22 percent) and driving a car (11 percent). Sexual activity was associated with illicit drug use in 9 percent of the scenes.

  9. One or more consequences of illicit drug use were portrayed in 34 percent of the scenes, typically showing how drug use alters a character’s physical or mental state.

  10. Few scenes emphasized the illegal nature of illicit drug use; the legal consequences of use (arrest or conviction) were rarely portrayed.

J. How are alcohol and tobacco portrayed on screen?

Percentages are based on 183 movies that depicted alcohol use or 172 movies that portrayed tobacco use.



  1. Characters drank hard liquor or mixed drinks in 78 percent of the movies, wine or champagne in 78 percent, and beer in 66 percent.

  2. More movies expressed positive statements about drinking alcohol (20 percent) than negative statements (9 percent). In addition, few movies (14 percent) showed characters who refused a drink, and only 6 percent explicitly advocated limits on where, when, or how much alcohol should be consumed.
  3. Alcohol consumption was frequently portrayed in positive contexts. About half of the movies depicted alcohol use at parties (49 percent), 24 percent associated its use with humor, and 34 percent with images of wealth.


  4. Drinking alcohol was frequently associated with taking risks—crime or violence in 38 percent of the movies, driving a car in 14 percent, and other risky behaviors in 7 percent. It was associated with sexual activity in 19 percent.

  5. Characters smoked cigarettes in 85 percent of the movies, cigars in 45 percent, and pipes in 10 percent. Characters chewed tobacco in 2 percent.

  6. Positive statements about smoking/smokers occurred infrequently (6 percent). Nearly one-fourth of the movies (22 percent) expressed negative statements about smoking or smokers, but few movies (7 percent) showed characters who refused to smoke.

  7. More movies associated smoking with crime or violence (34 percent) than with images of wealth (18 percent), parties (18 percent), or humor (10 percent). Only 5 percent of movies associated smoking with sex.

K. How often does brand information appear in movies?

  1. Alcohol brand names were identified in 43 percent of the movies in which alcohol appeared, excluding movies set in the distant past; Budweiser was identified five times more often than any other brand.

  2. Cigarette brands were identified in 13 percent of the movies that portrayed tobacco use, excluding movies set in the distant past; Marlboro was identified five times more often than any other brand.

L. How do movies portray substance use by youth?

Percentages are based on all scenes depicting substance use by characters who appeared to be under 18.


  1. Twenty-nine movies (15 percent) portrayed substance use by underage characters in 98 different scenes; about half of these scenes involved a major character who appeared to be under 18.


  2. Most scenes portrayed young characters smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or both. Characters assumed to be under 18 smoked cigarettes in 51 percent of the scenes (a cigar in one scene), and consumed alcohol (mostly beer) in 46 percent of the scenes. Illicit drug use (marijuana exclusively) was shown in six scenes.

  3. Clear motives for young characters’ substance use were rarely portrayed. A few scenes conveyed the idea that young people use substances to reduce stress or improve their mood or self-image. Only one scene portrayed use as a result of peer pressure.

  4. Few scenes (11 percent) portrayed young people using substances alone. Use was typically a social activity—mostly boys and girls together (59 percent) or a group of boys (35 percent). These social occasions sometimes involved youth sharing the same drink or smoking the same cigarette or joint (16 percent).

  5. Young characters either drank alcohol (beer or hard liquor) or smoked (cigarettes or marijuana) at school in 13 percent of these scenes.

  6. No scenes showed young characters using alcohol or illicit drugs in a car, but a few scenes associated substance use with sex or other adolescent high-risk behaviors.

  7. Young characters rarely experienced any consequences of substance use. Only 13 percent of scenes portrayed any consequences, and only 10 percent depicted any consequences to a major character. The instances in which consequences were shown involved physical reactions to drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or marijuana (such as loss of motor control, slurred speech, headaches, or coughing).

Table of Contents

Music Findings

M. How often do songs refer to substances?


  1. Slightly more than one-fourth (27 percent) of the 1,000 songs surveyed contained a direct reference to alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs. Some lyrics contained references of more than one type. (Figure 1)

  2. References to activities associated with substance use (e.g., "partying") appeared in 6 percent and figurative use of drug language (e.g., "I’m high on you") in 14 percent. When these categories were included, the percentage of songs with substance-related references climbed to 35 percent.

  3. The frequency of substance references varied considerably among genres. Considering direct references only, substances appeared in 75 percent of Rap songs, 20 percent of Hot-100, 20 percent of Alternative Rock, 14 percent of Country-Western, and 12 percent of Heavy Metal. (Figure 9)

  4. Substance use formed the central theme of only 16 songs (2 percent) of the total 1,000 studied. Drug dealing was the central theme in six songs.

N. What substances are referred to most frequently?

  1. Illicit drugs appeared in 18 percent of the 1,000 songs in the sample, alcohol in 17 percent, and tobacco in 3 percent. (Figure 1)

  2. Of the 166 songs containing alcohol references, hard liquor or mixed drinks appeared in 36 percent, wine or champagne in 34 percent, and beer or malt liquor in 22 percent. About one-third (31 percent) referred to alcohol generically (e.g., "booze").
    (Figure 10)
  3. Marijuana was by far the most common of the illicit drugs, appearing in 63 percent of the 182 songs with an illicit drug reference. Crack cocaine appeared in 15 percent, powder cocaine in 10 percent, hallucinogens in 4 percent, and heroin or other opiates in 4 percent. Miscellaneous other drugs were mentioned in 4 percent. (Figure 10)


O. How does the frequency of substance portrayals vary among music genres?

References to illicit drugs appeared in 63 percent of Rap songs, 11 percent of both Hot-100 and Alternative Rock songs, and 9 percent of Heavy Metal. Only one Country-Western song referred to illicit drugs. (Figure 9)

Alcohol references were also most frequent in Rap music (47 percent) and least frequent in Heavy Metal (4 percent). Country-Western had 13 percent, Hot-100 12 percent, and Alternative Rock 10 percent. (Figure 9)

Though there were few tobacco references, these were also most common in Rap songs, 7 percent of which mentioned cigars or cigarettes. Alternative Rock was next at 4 percent. No other genre was above 2 percent.

P. What is the context of substance use in music lyrics?

Because there were too few tobacco use references to calculate meaningful percentages for the following variables, the results in this section only address illicit drugs and alcohol. Percentages are based on 156 songs that referred to illicit drug use and 149 that referred to alcohol use. Sixty-nine songs referred to both illicit drug and alcohol use.




Anti-use statements occurred in 6 percent of songs with illicit drug references and 3 percent of songs with alcohol references. (Figures 2 and 3)

Statements condemning the effects of substance use on the community at large occurred in 8 percent of songs with illicit drug references and 1 percent of songs with alcohol references. (Table 2)

References to a desire or attempt to quit use occurred in 5 percent of the songs with illicit drug references and 3 percent of the songs with alcohol references. (Table 2)

Addiction was mentioned in 7 percent of the songs with illicit drug references and 2 percent of the songs with alcohol references. (Table 2)

Some sort of refusal behavior occurred in 2 percent of the songs with illicit drug references and 5 percent of the songs with alcohol references. (Figures 2 and 3)

Table 2

The Context of Substance Use in Lyrics


Percentage of songs depicting use that refer to:

Illicit Drugs

Alcohol

Negative effects of substance use on the community

8%

1%

Desire or attempt to quit use

5%

3%

Addiction

7%

2%

Seeking treatment or help

2%

1%

Sobriety or being straight

3%

3%

Intoxication or being high

44%

24%

Percentages are based on 156 songs that referred to illicit drug use and 149 songs that referred to alcohol use. References not related to use are excluded.

Intoxication or "being high" was mentioned in 44 percent of the songs with illicit drug references and 24 percent of the songs with alcohol references. (Table 2) Alternative Rock songs were most likely to refer to intoxication (63 percent), followed by Rap (40 percent), Heavy Metal (35 percent), Hot-100 (34 percent), and Country-Western (12 percent).

Sobriety or being straight was mentioned in 3 percent of the songs with illicit drug references and 3 percent of the songs with alcohol references; few songs mentioned seeking treatment or help (2 percent for drugs, 1 percent for alcohol). (Table 2)



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