Prior to these papers, a number of studies had already mapped out the landscape of televised drinking. As the most-depicted drug on television, alcohol had often been consumed by rich, white, attractive, older men in non-villain roles, often with little consequence or moral judgment. Young adults watching such characters internalize the messages behind these portrayals, or so says cultivation theory, which holds among its tenets that kids develop beliefs and behaviors through observation of their on-screen role models.
The University of Antwerp study analyzed 1,895 scenes from The O.C. (the first two seasons) and found that roughly a sixth of them depicted an alcoholic beverage. The Journal of Advertising study offered more specific stats: Each episode of The O.C. featured on average four minutes of alcohol depictions and four to five verbal references to booze. Of all the episodes analyzed, more than a third had storylines in which alcohol was an important component.
The messages surrounding these depictions were largely neutral, if not positive. Keeping with television tradition, alcohol consumption on The O.C. was overwhelmingly consequence-free--94.5 percent of the time, according to the University of Antwerp study. Of the 76 episodes the Journal of Advertising study analyzed, 89.5 percent depicted at least one positive outcome, while 60.5 percent featured at least one negative outcome. When you narrow that down to episodes that only featured positive outcomes from alcohol, you get a third of the first three seasons. When you do the same for negative consequences, you only get about two episodes.
The University of Antwerp study authors seemed particularly alarmed by the show's more subtle pro-alcohol messages, such as the characters' inclination to drink their problems away when life got tough. "It is remarkable how understanding and even approving other characters were when someone once turned to alcohol after a setback," they wrote.
That's not to say Newport Beach was a world without repercussions. As fans will remember, some of the series' biggest storylines--spoiler alert!--involved serious alcohol-related consequences: Ryan's mother battled a drinking problem that led the Cohen family to take him in; Marissa struggles with alcohol even after going to therapy for a drug overdose; Kirsten Cohen's alcoholism wrecks her car, nearly wrecks her marriage, and sends her to rehab; Marissa's surfer friend Johnny falls off a cliff to his death after drunkenly declaring his love for her; Marissa herself dies in the third season after her drunk-driving ex-boyfriend rams her off the road.
Viewers were conscious of both the positive and negative messages in the show, but in different ways, according to the Journal of Advertising study. The more episodes of The O.C. the study's subjects watched, the more they perceived the negative messages about alcohol laced throughout the series. But the more they felt connected to the show--loved it, related to it, identified with it--the more they noticed and believed the positive messages and outcomes about alcohol, both subtle and obvious. Highly connected viewers still recognized the negative references, but they also had better recall about affluent characters' product choices, like their favorite drink, and other lifestyle habits. So if you were a casual fan or hate-watcher, the show may not have seemed particularly pro-alcohol. But if you were really, really into The O.C., it could have inspired you to hit the bottle during your own family trauma--like, say, finding out your mom was sleeping with your ex-boyfriend.