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Hip-Hop Videos Rife With Smoking Imagery, Dartmouth Study Finds

By The Come Up Show from Canada - Snoop Dogg, CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)MoreCloseclosemore
By The Come Up Show from Canada - Snoop Dogg, CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hip-hop has risen into the most popular music genre in America, surpassing even rock musicBut its lyrical content and imagery have often drawn backlash and criticism as a bad influence on impressionable audiences.

Now, researchers are questioning whether hip-hop could pose a health risk to young people because of its frequent portrayal of smoking.

A new study out of Dartmouth College examined the prevalence of smoking tobacco or marijuana products in hip-hop music videos from 2013 to 2017, and how tobacco brands are using hip-hop’s popularity to market themselves to younger audiences.

I talked with the study’s lead author, Kristin Knutzen, about the findings, and what we know about the influence hip-hop videos may or may not have on young adults.

What was the major finding of the study?

Approximately half of the videos that we looked at showed tobacco and marijuana use. For example, DJ Khaled’s song “I’m the One” shows the main artist and many other influential artists using a branded vape and hand-rolled combustible item. The video itself has been viewed over a billion times.

The concern is that not only are kids and young adults watching these videos once, they’re watching them over and over again. And even brief exposure to smoking or brand placement can make the viewer interested in experimenting with those products or create an affinity with that brand. So when they’re watching it time and time again, we’re concerned that that would be creating a pretty strong desire to experiment or pretty strong affinity for that brand.

So were videos that depicted smoking more popular than those that didn’t?

We don’t know if the videos that showed smoking and vaping were inherently more popular because they had smoking and vaping in the videos, but we did notice that videos that depicted smoking and vaping had more views on sites such as YouTube, for whatever reason.

What are the concerns about the prevalence of smoking in hip-hop videos?

Hip-hop is a really important source of social commentary, and rappers and artists use it to convey a variety of social, cultural and political messages. But the tobacco and marijuana use seen in these videos could make kids and young adults more interested in experimenting with the products shown, especially if the artists are influential. It also might decrease the perceived “riskiness” of the behavior, so we’re concerned that this increase in showing tobacco and marijuana products in music videos will lead more young people to experiment with these products.

Is there any evidence of that trend?

We don’t have those polls yet, though we know that marijuana currently surpassed traditional cigarette use among youth, and e-cigarettes are also on the rise. We are not necessarily conducting any [survey] on how viewing hip-hip videos are influencing the smoking and vaping patterns of youth, but there is significant concern that the two go hand in hand.

Are there similar studies in other music genres?

There have been a number of studies that have looked at lyrical references in other popular music, not just in hip-hop. To my knowledge, there are currently no other studies looking at a specific genre for smoking tobacco or marijuana.

Another reason we were interested in looking at hip-hop is because, although it appeals to a wide variety of audiences, there is a pretty substantial minority population that hip-hop appeals to. And big tobacco is notorious for using marketing tactics to target minority communities. Because this is a relatively novel media channel for them to be advertising through, if that’s what this brand placement is, there is also some concern that they could be using music videos and hip-hop as a way to target minorities. There are other communities of concern with other genres, but this stood out to us in studying hip-hop.

Related:

Khari Thompson Fellow, On Point
Khari Thompson joined WBUR as a radio production fellow at On Point in July 2018.

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