Images of masculinity and femininity exploited, amongst other things
What do researchers find when given thousands of pages of paper and electronic documents chronicling meetings, client briefs, creative briefs, media briefs, advertising budgets and market research reports? The UK government commissioned an investigation of the alcohol industry a while back. As part of this work, researchers from the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling conducted an analysis of internal alcohol industry advertising documents related to the promotion of five brands between 2005 and 2008: Carling, Lambrini, Sidekick, Smirnoff and WKD. Their report was released last year with fascinating findings.
Overall, the researchers found that existing codes to regulate alcohol advertising are impossible to police and are vulnerable to exploitation. They found that the codes:
- do not protect youth from alcohol advertising
- do not prevent advertisers from promoting drunkenness and excess
- allow advertisers to link alcohol with social and sexual success
- do not regulate new media (such as Facebook and text messaging) which are becoming one of the biggest channels for alcohol promotion
I was interested to see what this report had to say about alcohol advertising and women. In the UK, as in most European countries, the gender gap is converging, with women tending to increase their alcohol consumption. (In 2006, men in the UK were still more likely than women to drink frequently – 37 per cent of men said that they drank on at least three days a week, compared with 24 percent of the women). With female alcohol consumption increasing, brands and manufacturers are targeting women with new products like fruit-flavored beer and light drinks (less calories and less alcohol) and the use of images of attractive men.
Youth in general and women in particular definitely seemed to be a target. The researchers give an example of consumer market research conducted by Lambrini where young women were asked to create “mood boards.” They were helpfully provided with pieces of paper with phrases like “getting pissed” and “pole dancing” typed on them. Their target audience was described as: “Younger female drinkers on a budget. Girls who like a drink and a laugh and who get a lot out of nights out (or in) with mates because it is a big release. They stay in Monday to Thursday, they watch soaps, they clip coupons, some have kids, some don’t. They could be 18 but they could be 38 and acting 18. The main thing is that Friday to Sunday they have FUN. Having a laugh and getting a bit pissed is a big part of their life.”
Other themes in advertising included sexual attractiveness and alcohol as a major contributor to social success (e.g., “social lubricant”). One document reads: “Sometimes girls hold back. They choose not to do the things they would really enjoy. They act sensible and serious because everyone else is being sensible and serious. They hold back when they should be letting go.”
Debates remain about the actual effects of alcohol advertising – do they encourage more people to drink or do they encourage brand switching and increased market share? What seems concerning, beyond the way that youth and girls are targeted, is the emphasis on drinking more and drinking more often. There seems to be a shift towards binge drinking or drinking to excess – a practice with enormous health implications for individuals and consequences for society at large.
Daly, Max. (2011). Drinking Games. Druglink Magazine, 26(1).
European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing. (2008). Women – the new market: Trends in Alcohol Marketing. Eucam Report.
Hastings, Gerard (2009). “They’ll drink bucket loads of the stuff”: An analysis of internal alcohol industry advertising documents. The Alcohol Education and Research Council.