Monday, May 4, 2015

Alcohol Industry Turns Moderation Into a Sales Message

A warning or an advertisement?

You almost have to admire the tenacity shown by the liquor industry in its passive aggressive method of turning a warning label into additional advertising.

Perhaps it was foolish to suppose that forcing the liquor industry to brand all bottles and advertisements with the catch-phrase, “Drink Responsibly,” or “Drink Moderately,” or some responsible variation on that theme, would do any good—or would be observed in good faith by alcohol companies.

To begin with, a majority of heavy or at-risk drinkers consider their intake to be moderate already, says Alcohol Concern, a national charity in the UK. According to a survey of drinkers in Wales, respondents thought they’d had enough to drink when they lost control or felt unwell: ‘when the rooms starts to spin’ or ‘when I have to be put in a taxi.’”

Secondly, the alcohol industry won’t play fair when it comes to displaying these modest messages. Alcohol Concern conducted a small study of alcohol advertising in a selection of consumer lifestyle magazines commonly available in supermarkets. Specifically, the study looked at the presence and placement of “drink responsibly” or “enjoy responsibly” messages in the advertising—a message alcohol companies have pledged to place voluntarily on labels.

The group sampled 18 issues, primarily food and diet magazines, sold at low cost, or sometimes given away in-store. Alcohol advertising represented as high as 40% of total advertising in some of the issues. The web address of Drinkaware, another public education charity, funded by the alcohol industry, was found in 94% of the alcohol advertisements. But as the study points out, “referencing an educational website hardly constitutes pulling out all the stops to make, as one leading drinks company ABInBev puts it, responsible drinking ‘a fundamental part of our dream to be the Best Beer Company bringing people together for a Better World.”

In total, “36% of alcohol adverts and advertorials included a specific drink responsibly message…. only in a minority of cases were the drink responsibly messages kept simple….” The Better World, it seems, will include a whole lot of branding.

Examples of industry embellishment are everywhere: Bacardi Rum ads asked you to “Live Passionately, Drink Responsibly,” while Martini cuts right to the point with its version, “Enjoy Martini Responsibly.” Grey Goose’s creative alternative is “Sip Passionately, Drink Responsibly,” while Diageo wants you to “Celebrate Life Responsibly.”

My personal UK favorites come from Jack Daniels: “Play with your Heart. Drink with Care. Live Freely. Drink Responsibly.”. Another example from Jack Daniels also illustrates the dichotomy: “Makes This Season a Winter to Remember. Drink Responsibly.” They read almost like a set of opposing commands: Play recklessly while you drink carefully. Live wild and free, except for your responsible drinking.

In sum, the UK alcohol industry just can’t play it straight. And while the U.S. record is better—Alcohol Concern cites American studies showing some sort of responsibility message in 9 out of 10 U.S. advertisements—U.S. distributors are not above a little brand promotion in the message, either. A random search for American alcohol ads quickly yielded Miller High Life’s “Great Beer. Great Responsibility. #IamRich.” Bud Light recently found itself in the gaffe business, forced to pull the cute little tagline on its cans: “Perfect Beer For Removing ‘No’ From Your Vocabulary For the Night. #UpForWhatever.” As Mashable covered the controversy on Twitter, “Bud Light campaign tells drunk people to remove ‘No” from their vocab.”

Perhaps the richest example unearthed by Alcohol Concern in UK supermarket magazines was the drink responsibly message found on one ad, where “the magazine pages had to be physically pulled back in order to read the message, in tiny type (known as ‘mouseprint’), along the left margin of the advert.”

To return to the first question: What, exactly, does responsible drinking mean? “If it’s sticking to current government-endorsed recommended limits,” the study asks, “then why does this advice not appear in a single alcohol advert or advertorial captured in this study?

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