Sunday, August 21, 2011

7 Myths the Alcohol Industry Wants You to Believe


Staying on message in the liquor biz. 

“Our national drug is alcohol,” wrote William S. Burroughs. “We tend to regard the use of any other drug with special horror.” This emotional loophole in the psyche has been skillfully manipulated by the alcohol and tobacco industries ever since modern advertising was invented.

 Recently, the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, known as EuroCare, put together a brochure addressing the common messages the liquor industry attempts to drive home through its heavy spending on advertising. The messages are not just designed to sell product, but also to influence alcohol policy at the political level as well. (Eurocare is a network of more than 50 voluntary non-governmental organizations working on the prevention and reduction of alcohol-related harm in 20 European countries.) According to the group, the “industry”—the alcohol and tobacco companies—“has traditionally worked closely together, sharing information and concerns about regulation. They have used similar arguments to defend their products in order to prevent or delay restrictions being placed on them (Bond, et al. 2010).”

EuroCare offers this introduction: “The intention of this brochure is to inform professionals about the attempts made by the alcohol industry to influence alcohol policy globally and to subsequently arm them against the industry’s methods to prevent effective policies from being made…. For politicians and health experts it is important that they reveal to the public the subversive messaging of the alcohol industry and do not fall prey to the industry’s half-truths—or worse—outright lies.”

Message 1: Consuming alcohol is normal, common, healthy, and very responsible.

Explanation: To bring this message home, alcohol advertisements nearly always associate alcohol consumption with health, sportsmanship, physical beauty, romanticism, having friends and leisure activities.

I note here that it’s left to the social service agencies and non-profits to attempt to convey the opposite side of the coin: a dramatically heightened risk for health problems, traffic fatalities, domestic violence, loss of job, loss of marriage, suicide—you name it.

Message 2: The damage done by alcohol is caused by a small group of deviants who cannot handle alcohol.

Explanation: Indeed, the message of the industry is that ordinary citizens drink responsibly and that ‘bad’ citizens drink irresponsibly and are the cause of any and all problems associated with high alcohol consumption.

This one is insidious and unscientific. There is no evidence that alcoholics are “bad people,” or simply unwilling to stop engaging in bad behavior. For the industry, irresponsible drinkers are a major revenue source—the dream customer— even though alcohol manufacturers continue to insist that their advertising is primarily about driving home the message of responsible alcohol consumption and brand choice.

Message 3: Normal adult non-drinkers do not, in fact, exist.

Explanation: Only children under 16 years of age, pregnant women and motorists are recognized by the industry as non-drinkers.

My personal favorite, this one. The existence of non-drinkers is seen by the industry as a threat. Accordingly, they have subtly reinforced the message that moderate drinking is not only normal, but also good for you. Never mind that the real profits come from excessive drinking and pricing strategies that encourage it. Estimates vary, but recent studies  at UCLA show that “the top 5% of drinkers account for 42%of the nation’s total alcohol consumption.” If 5% of all drinkers account for nearly half of total alcohol sales, it would be folly for the alcohol industry to get serious about encouraging moderation. It’s not too far off the mark to say that the alcohol industry’s quarterly statements hinge on the success they have in encouraging alcoholics to believe that everything’s okay, everybody drinks that way. The message becomes clearer: Drinking is mandatory—unless you’re a deviant.

Message 4: Ignore the fact that alcohol is a harmful and addictive chemical substance (ethanol) for the body.

Explanation: The industry does not draw attention to the fact that alcohol (ethanol) is a detrimental, toxic, carcinogenic and addictive substance that is foreign to the body.

Naturally, pointing out the neuroscientific parallels between alcoholism and heroin addiction is not part of the message. Alcohol is a hard drug—ask any addiction expert. Alcoholism can kill you quick. But so far, the labeling mania that struck opponents of Big Tobacco has not played out in a major way in the battle against deceptive alcohol advertising.

Message 5: Alcohol problems can only be solved when all parties work together.

Explanation: Good, effective policies to combat alcohol consumption would require a higher excise-duty, no marketing or sponsoring, an increase in the drinking age to 18, a prohibition of the illegitimate sale of alcohol, and an increase, through a campaign, in the public’s awareness of the damages that alcohol can cause (Babor et al, 2010; WHO, 2009).

Obviously, these bullet points are not high on the alcohol industry’s agenda.

Message 6: "Alcohol marketing is not harmful. It is simply intended to assist the consumer in selecting a certain product or brand."

Explanation: Meanwhile, research has indisputably demonstrated that alcohol advertisements are both attractive to young people and stimulate their drinking behavior (Anderson et al., 2009: Science Group of the Alcohol and Health Forum; 2009). Yet the industry continues to flatly and publicly deny that advertising stimulates alcohol consumption (Bond et al; 2009).

Stuffed with attractive young people meeting and mating over alcohol, it seems fair to suggest that alcohol ads had better stimulate increased drinking, i.e., a boost in quarterly sales, or else the industry is wasting a lot of money fighting over pieces of a pie that isn’t getting any bigger. These days, slow growth is no growth.


Message 7: “Education about responsible use is the best method to protect society from alcohol problems.”

Explanation: Effective measures such as a higher alcohol excise-duty, establishing minimum prices, higher age limits and advertisement restrictions can reduce alcohol related harm and will therefore decrease the profits of the industry (Babor, 2003; Babor, 2010). The industry therefore does its best to persuade governments, politicians, and policy makers that the above mentioned measures would have no effect, are only symbolic in nature or are illegitimate.

A truly great dodge, because the strategy being advertised sounds so imminently sensible. Who could be against the promotion of responsible alcohol use? Irresponsible zealots and deviants, that’s who. Why should all of us happy drinkers be made to suffer for the sins of a few rotten apples?

Indeed, all of the messages, overtly or covertly, send the same signal: You should drink more. It’s good for you.

Photo Credit: http://www.frankwbaker.com

25 comments:

Stark Raving Sober said...

I remember being horrified when my marketing professor told the class that hard liquor is a "90 / 10" industry - it makes 90% of its profit from 10% of its consumers. Obviously, those 10% must be drinking an awful lot of high proof alcohol to generate 90% of revenues for the manufacturer, and I'm quite sure those type of drinkers look nothing like the couple in the ad, above LOL

Dirk Hanson said...

Yeah, it's astonishing when you twig to that fact. I used to wonder why the liquor business bothered with low-end products like Night Train and Thunderbird until I realized they were specifically designed as cheap products for late-stage alcoholics....

Stark Raving Sober said...

Oh, and this is priceless: "the industry continues to flatly and publicly deny that advertising stimulates alcohol consumption." Do tell, then, what is the return on investment for that big 'ole marketing budget?? Is it a humanitarian effort to preserve the world from the harmful effects of empty billboards?

Dirk Hanson said...

Don't ya love it. The only industry in the world whose advertising spend is specifically designed NOT to increase sales of their product.

Gargle Nation said...

Great post, thanks. The industry has clearly learned from the demise of tobacco (see the book Doubt is Their Product) and is playing a long and careful game. In the UK they are now sitting on the government board that regulates alcohol harm, and research sponsored by the industry is carefully maintaining the myth that it is always the user and never the product that is to blame. fyi my own Gargle Nation article http://www.garglenation.com/2011/03/teenage-deaths-rise-is-alcohol.html looks at the failures of self regulation.

Snowdon said...

Message 1: Consuming alcohol is normal, common, healthy, and very responsible.

Alcohol is drunk by 89% of people where I live (UK) and has been around in every non-Islamic civilisation in history. Perhaps you have a different definition of 'normal' and 'common' than me. The industry never says drinking is healthy or 'very responsible', although there are health benefits.

Message 2: The damage done by alcohol is caused by a small group of deviants who cannot handle alcohol.

The industry has never said that the problem is caused by 'bad people' or 'deviants'. Most of the damage done in terms of violence and health is, however, caused by a minority.

Message 3: Normal adult non-drinkers do not, in fact, exist.

Straw man. Neither the industry nor anyone else has ever said this.

Message 4: Ignore the fact that alcohol is a harmful and addictive chemical substance (ethanol) for the body.

This isn't a statement, but alcohol is neither harmful nor addictive to the majority of drinkers.

Message 5: Alcohol problems can only be solved when all parties work together.

Alcohol problems cannot be solved, period. So long as there is drink, there will be drink problems. Prohibition and neo-prohibitionist policies increase the harm.

Message 6: "Alcohol marketing is not harmful. It is simply intended to assist the consumer in selecting a certain product or brand."

In established markets, advertisers primarily work to take market share from their competitors. The industry is not monolithic, but made up of rival companies competing for customers. Bans and limitations on alcohol advertising in the last century have made no difference to overall consumption.

Message 7: “Education about responsible use is the best method to protect society from alcohol problems.”

Compared to the solutions you propose, this is true. The countries with the highest alcohol taxes, such as the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia, have some of the highest drinking rates.

Dirk Hanson said...

I think these very cogent and interesting rebuttals would carry more weight with me if I had not, in fact, viewed many of the ads in question. And what is it the liquor industry hopes to learn from Big Tobacco, if not more efficient ways of evading heath regulations....

Kitten Evil said...

Dirk, I haven't seen any ads that contradict Snowdon's rebuttal. Could you please share them?

Anonymous said...

These are 'myths' only in the sense that you call them myths.

A better title might have been "7 Opinions I Don't Share With the Alcohol Industry."

Kendall said...

While I'm perfectly sure that alcohol companies can be just as sociopathic as any other large company (including, yes, tobacco companies) and are surely keen to avoid regulation, I have to admit to being seriously unconvinced by some of the points here. Let's take them point by point:

Message 1: Consuming alcohol is normal, common, healthy, and very responsible.
First up, where are the ads that say this? I don't recall seeing them. Secondly, Snowdon is right, alcohol consumption is very common in the target markets. I'm not so sure he's right about the health benefits though, the evidence on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption seem to be all over the place. Call me back when there's scientific consensus.

Message 2: The damage done by alcohol is caused by a small group of deviants who cannot handle alcohol.
Yeah, I'm happy with this one. The message that you drink 'responsibly' does seem tailor made to shift the blame onto the victims here. Exhortations to 'enjoy in moderation' are perhaps not so bad though.

Message 3: Normal adult non-drinkers do not, in fact, exist.
Well, obviously the ads all feature people using the product. If non-drinkers were being portrayed negatively in alcohol ad, that'd be a very different matter.
Oh, and I'd also guess that non-drinkers (and light drinkers) are seen more as an opportunity to expand the market than as a threat.

Message 4: Ignore the fact that alcohol is a harmful and addictive chemical substance (ethanol) for the body.
Oh dear, chemophobia. I'd expect higher standards from a scientific blog. You are aware that everything you drink is chemicals, right? Even water (AKA oxidane, chemical formula H₂O).
As for "harmful and addictive", I'm going to suggest that (as for most toxicants) dosage matters. That is, unless you can produce decent evidence that moderate alcohol usage leads to addiction or significant harm.

Message 5: Alcohol problems can only be solved when all parties work together.
Wouldn't really expect to see this message in the ads, but I'm sure they push this one behind the scenes. I can't really think of any industry that wouldn't prefer to be self-'regulating' (worked out real well for the banks, didn't it?</snark>).
I am slightly baffled about the meaning of the phrase "prohibition of the illegitimate sale of alcohol". It strikes me as being either tautological or worryingly open-ended. You wouldn't happen to know which it is, would you?

Message 6: "Alcohol marketing is not harmful. It is simply intended to assist the consumer in selecting a certain product or brand."
Snowdon's right, there's no reason they wouldn't fight over pieces of the pie. But he's also wrong, teenagers are entering the potential market constantly and represent a chance to pick up new customers. Quite a lucrative market too, if my memories of my misspent youth are anything to go by.
Restricting or even banning advertising does seem to be the most practical suggestion here, since there's no real downside. It's harmful if it does work, and wasteful if it doesn't.

Message 7: “Education about responsible use is the best method to protect society from alcohol problems.”
Well, my objection to the word 'responsible' stands, and 'best' might be going too far, but I do think that giving people the tools to make an informed choice is generally a good idea, yes.

Anonymous said...

I am still gonna drink beer.

Cathy | Treatment Talk said...

Interesting article. The statistics you gave are startling and does make your point that it is in the industries' best interest to encourage heavy drinking which is outrageous. Not sure if they have the same products in Europe, but I am also concerned about the new products mixing energy type drinks with alcohol to sell to the kids. They seem very dangerous.

Dirk Hanson said...

You're confused. I didn't call them myths. The European Alcohol Policy Alliance called them myths, and I reported it.

Dirk Hanson said...

Don't take my reporting for it. Check for yourself: Here's a PDF stuffed full of pages of comment letters received by the Federal Trade Commission relating to sleazy, duplicitious, false and misleading alcohol advertising:

www.marininstitute.org/site/images/stories/pdfs/discus_responses.pdf

Dirk Hanson said...

Kitten Evil:
This should help. Check out "deconstructing alcohol ads."

http://www.frankwbaker.com/alcoholdeconstruction.htm

seo affiliate program said...

What is it the liquor industry hopes to learn from Big Tobacco, if not more efficient ways of evading heath regulations.

rachelrachel said...

Snowdon:

I'm not sure where you're getting your numbers. According to the WHO studies, the UK has a rate of 12.2% total lifetime abstainers, defined as the percentage of the population over 15 years who have never consumed alcohol in their lifetime. CURRENT abstainers will obviously be a lot higher than that. Your 89% figure of people in your country who drink is too high.

http://chartsbin.com/view/1027

Also, among European countries Norway and Sweden have for quite a few years had among the lowest rates of alcohol consumption. This appears to still be true, with 7.8 liters per person per year and 10.3 liters, respectively, I think the two lowest figures (aside from Turkey) in continental Europe. High compared to the rest of the world (Europe being the heaviest drinking region), but low compared to the rest of Europe. They certainly do not have anything close to the highest drinking rates.

http://chartsbin.com/view/1016

I think your numbers are bad.

rachelrachel said...

Kendall:

Believe it or not, there is a scientific consensus about the health effects of moderate drinking. There reason some might think otherwise is that the liquor lobby's PR has done its best to make it look like the evidence was all over the place. Their highly credentialed surrogates insinuate themselves into news stories, providing a "balanced" response, often without revealing their source of income. Putting it simply, it does appear that low to moderate doses of ethyl alcohol can reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke. However, if you are drinking enough to create these effects, you will also put yourself at risk for numerous other ailments, including cancer, liver disease, and hemorrhagic stroke. Going over that very low amount will erase whatever protective effect it might have. All these effects at these moderate levels of consumption are small.

The real danger of moderate drinking is addiction. You might not believe that moderate drinking sometimes leads to addiction, but the scientific consensus (you're the one who is interested in this stuff) is that it does. A majority of users suffer no serious adverse effects, but a substantial minority have a devastating problem. Nobody starts out thinking that they're going to become an alcoholic. They start out drinking moderately. In this way it is no different from cocaine or heroin.

Also, the scientific consensus is that the kinds of policies that Dirk was mentioning -- taxation, stepped-up enforcement, restrictions on advertising, etc. -- do make a difference. None of them put an end to alcohol problems, but epidemiological studies show that they do make a difference. Another sign that they work -- more persuasive to me -- is that the alcohol lobby is fighting against them whenever they are proposed.

Also, it should be pointed out that ads work not solely or primarily through direct claims, but by image and suggestion. Instead of directly making a claim that drinking beer will make you sexy, they should you an ad with sexy people in a sexy situation with sexy music in the background. Instead of directly stating that beer is good for your health, they show you healthy, vigorous young people engaged in athletic activities.

Dee-Addiction Recovery Interviews said...

I think this is a very good point you made:

I note here that it’s left to the social service agencies and non-profits to attempt to convey the opposite side of the coin: a dramatically heightened risk for health problems, traffic fatalities, domestic violence, loss of job, loss of marriage, suicide—you name it.

People often feel uncomfortable when they don't fit into the norm in family gatherings and social situations and this is part of why drinking is seductive.

Dee

D.J. Andrews said...

I can't believe someone tried to argue alcohol wasn't harmful. It is a carcinogen. It damages liver cells. It damages brain cells. Many of the age-related declines of cognitive function are actually caused by, or accelerated by, long-term low to moderate levels of drinking. Two beer a week over a 10-year period is enough to cause a measurable and significant decrease on IQ and other mental performance tests.

You want to drink, fine, but don't be in denial and don't spread your denial-type meme hat alcohol isn't harmful when drunk in moderation.

By the way, I think caffeine is another drug that is socially acceptable. If you can't function without your coffee to start your day, and if you go into withdrawal when you can't get it, you have a drug problem. Just because it is a socially acceptable drug problem, does not change the fact you have a drug problem. At least be honest about that too.

Pat said...

62% of the British population had a drink in the last week before this questionnaire in 2010:

The Grauniad report, so may be a little dyslexic.

Nissim Levy said...

Don't impose a prohibition law on me. I choose to drink red wine and beer in moderation. It's not your call to prohibit me from that.

Anonymous said...

Alcohol is ruining the lives of my family.

Red said...

@DJ--technically sunlight is a carcinogen as well. Remember when you first learned about skin cancer? Does that mean nobody should ever go out in the sun?

To stick with that analogy, there is a big difference between walking around in broad daylight, or going to the beach having taken the appropriate precautions by wearing sunscreen, and being a tanning fanatic.

As for whether or not alcohol consumption is "normal," "common," or "healthy," does anybody here seriously intend to tell me that having a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week is not "normal," "common," or "healthy"? (I will concede here that most good wines are not advertised and trade primarily on reputation.)

Dirk Hanson said...

Point here is that NOT consuming alcohol is also "normal," "common" and "healthy." In fact, the notion that moderate drinking is good for your heart has been seriously weakened by recent research. No doctor is ever going to tell you to drink alcohol for the good of your overall health.

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