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Dec. 2, 2010 Volume 32, No. 14

MU researchers pour cold water on ‘fan cans’


Team-themed containers make beer seem safer

When Anheuser Busch introduced a line of black-and-gold Bud Light cans in 2009, the university quickly took exception to the new marketing strategy. In a letter to the company, Chancellor Brady J. Deaton said the cans were “completely unacceptable” for an audience of college students.

“At MU, we work hard to educate our students about making responsible choices,” Deaton wrote, “and I would call upon Anheuser-Busch as a leading Missouri corporation to assist us in that process rather than targeting this age group with team colors on beer cans.”

Two weeks later,  Anheuser Busch agreed to pull the “fan cans” from store shelves in Columbia.

New research suggests that was probably a smart move. Two University of Missouri psychologists now say students exposed to fan cans believed that drinking beer was less dangerous and that hoisting a few team-themed cold ones with friends made them feel more safe than if they were drinking with people outside of their peer group.

In a series of experiments, Chris Loersch, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences, and Bruce Bartholow, an associate professor, set out to determine if exposure to fan cans would change perceptions of the risks of beer drinking. MU students were randomly assigned to view images of beer in either a standard can or a can featuring the colors of their university. They were then asked questions that gauged their perceptions of alcohol safety.

The results showed that students exposed to fan cans rated beer consumption  — and their group’s party practices — as less dangerous. Students who saw the fan can were faster to recognize words indicating safety and slower to recognize words indicating danger. Moreover, students who saw a fan can rated the local social scene as less dangerous compared to participants who saw a regular beer can or a bottle of water presented in university colors.

Even when participants were subliminally exposed to the word “beer,” feelings of safety persisted, providing evidence that fan cans affect people’s unconscious responses toward beer.

The study builds on previous research that found that people view members of their social groups as trustworthy and safe, Loersch said.

“We found that when people identify themselves with a certain group, such as a college or university, and if that group ‘endorses’ a product, people assume the product is safe,” Loersch said.

The research did not investigate whether fan cans influenced actual drinking behavior. However, the findings are important because alcohol consumption often leads to more risk-taking and an increased likelihood of serious injury.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that each year 600,000 college students, most underage, are injured while drinking. Another 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault each year. Loersch and Bartholow concluded that “beer marketed in college team colors could change perceptions about its safety, potentially worsening these already troubling figures.”

Susan O’Neill, a psychologist with the MU Student Health Center, said the research shows that marketing campaigns that alter drinkers’ perceptions of alcohol’s risks, especially at an unconcious level, have no place in college communities.

“Challenging the aggressive promotion of drinking, whether by campus social groups or national corporations, is important to create a campus culture that encourages responsible drinking,” O’Neill said.