Deadly Persuasion: 7 Myths Alcohol Advertisers Want You to Believe


This article originally appeared in Issue# 54-55

"Absolut Magic" proclaims a print ad for a popular vodka. "Paradise found," headlines another. "Fairy tales can come true" says a third.

All these ads illustrate the major premise of alcohol advertising's mythology: Alcohol is magic, a magic carpet that can take you away. It can make you successful, sophisticated, sexy. Without it, your life would be dull, mediocre and ordinary.

Everyone wants to believe in happy endings. But as most of us know, the reality of alcohol for many people in our society is more like a horror story than a fairy tale. The liquid in the glass is definitely not a magic potion.

We are surrounded by the message that alcohol is fun, sexy, desirable and harmless. We get this message many times a day. We get it from the ads and, far more insidiously, we get it from the media, which depend upon alcohol advertising for a large share of their profits. Thanks to this connection, alcohol use tends to be glorified throughout the media and alcohol-related problems are routinely dismissed.

Alcohol is related to parties, good times, celebrations and fun, but it is also related to murder, suicide, unemployment and child abuse. These connections are never made in the ads. Of course, one would not expect them to be. The advertisers are selling their product and it is their job to erase any negative aspects as well as to enhance the positive ones. However, when the product is the nation's number one drug, there are consequences that go far beyond product sales.

Most people know that alcohol can cause problems. But how many realize that 10 percent of all deaths in the United States - including half of all homicides and at least one quarter of all suicides - are related to alcohol? The economic cost to the nation exceeds $100 billion a year. At least 13,000,000 Americans, about one out of 10, are alcoholic - the personal cost to them and their families is incalculable.

The tab for alcohol use doesn't end there. More than $2 billion a year - a sizable chunk of the over $90 billion the industry takes in annually - goes to prime the advertising and promotion pump and keep drinkers' money flowing freely. Problem drinkers and young people are the primary targets of these advertisers.

Of course, industry spokespeople disagree with this claim. Over and over again, their public statements assert that they are not trying to create new or heavier drinkers. Instead, they say they only want people who already drink to switch to another brand and to drink it in moderation. However, the most basic analysis of alcohol advertising reveals an emphasis on both recruiting new, young users and pushing heavy consumption of their products.

Indeed, advertising that encouraged only moderate drinking would be an economic failure. This becomes clear when you know that only 10 percent of the drinking-age population consumes over half of all alcoholic beverages sold. According to Robert Hammond, director of the Alcohol Research Information Service, if all 105 million drinkers of legal age consumed the official maximum "moderate" amount of alcohol - .99 ounces per day, the equivalent of about two drinks - the industry would suffer "a whopping 40 percent decrease in the sale of beer, wine and distilled spirits."

Young Prospects

These figures make it clear that if alcoholics were to recover - i.e., stop drinking - the alcoholic beverage industry's gross revenue would be cut in half. I can't believe that industry executives want that to happen. On the contrary, my 15-year study of alcohol advertising makes me certain that advertisers deliberately target the heavy drinker and devise ads designed to appeal to him or her. As with any product, the heavy user is the best customer. However, when the product is a drug, the heavy user is often an addict.

Not all problem drinkers are alcoholics. Youthful drinking is frequently characterized by binges and episodes of drunkenness, making young people a lucrative market for alcohol producers. According to the 1989 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey of high school seniors, 33 percent of students reported that they had consumed five or more drinks on one occasion within the previous two weeks. This group is vulnerable to ad campaigns that present heavy drinking as fun and normal.

Media sell target audiences to the alcohol industry on a cost-per-drinker basis. "Cosmopolitan readers drank 21,794,000 glasses of beer in the last week… Isn't it time you gave Cosmopolitan a shot?" proclaims an ad aimed at the alcohol industry.

The primary purpose of the mass media is to deliver audiences to advertisers. It's worthwhile taking a closer look at how some of the common myths alcohol advertisers have created do this.

  1. Drinking is a risk-free activity.

  2. Ads featuring copy like "The Joy of Six" imply that it is all right to consume large quantities of alcohol. Light beer ("great taste") has been developed and heavily promoted not for the dieter but for the heavy drinker. It is "less filling," and therefore one can drink more.

    Ads like these tell the alcoholic and those around him or her that is all right, indeed splendid, to be obsessed by alcohol, to consume large amounts of it on a daily basis and to have it be a part of all one's activities. At the same time, all signs of trouble and any hint of addiction are erased.

    Every instance of use seems spontaneous, unique. The daily drinking takes place on yachts at sunset, not at kitchen tables in the morning. Bottles are magically unopened even when drinks have been poured. All signs of trouble and any hint of addiction are conspicuously avoided. There is no unpleasant drunkenness, only high spirits. Certainly alcohol-related problems such as alcohol-impaired driving, broken marriages, abused children, lost jobs, illness and premature death - are never even hinted at.

  3. You can't survive without drinking.

  4. "It separates the exceptional from the merely ordinary," is how a Piper champagne ad puts it. By displaying a vibrant, imbibing couple against a black and white non-drinking background crowd, the advertiser contrasts the supposedly alive and colorful world of the drinker with dull reality. The alcohol has resurrected the couple, restored them to life.

    In general, such advertising is expert at making the celebration of drinking itself - not a holiday, festivity or family event - a reason for imbibing ("Pour a Party," "Holidays were made for Michelob.")

    At the heart of the alcoholic's dilemma and denial is this belief, this certainty, that alcohol is essential for life, that without it he or she will literally die - or at best be condemned to a gray and two-dimensional wasteland, a half-life. These ads, and many others like them, present that nightmare as true, thus affirming and even glorifying one of the symptoms of the illness.

  5. Problem drinking behaviors are normal.

  6. A shot of a sunset-lit bridge, captioned "At the end of the day, even a bridge seems to be heading home for Red," is actually advertising not just Scotch, but daily drinking. Often symptoms of alcohol, such as the need for a daily drink, are portrayed as not only normal, but desirable. A Smirnoff ad captioned "Hurry Sundown" features a vampirish lady immobilized in a coffin-like setting awaiting the revivifying effects of a vodka gimlet.

    Slogans presenting drinking as "your own special island," and "your mountain hideaway" capitalize on the feelings of alienation and loneliness most alcoholics experience. Such ads seem to encourage solitary drinking, often one of the classic indicators of trouble with alcohol. They also distort the tragic reality that problem drinking increases - rather than alleviates - those feelings of isolation.

    Alcohol lies at the center of these ads, just as it is at the center of the alcoholic's life.

    "The trick for marketers is to project the right message in
    their advertisements to motivate those often motionless
    consumers to march down to the store or bar and
    exchange their money for a sip of liquor."
    Advertising Age

  7. Alcohol is a magic potion that can transform you.

  8. Alcohol advertising often spuriously links alcohol with precisely those attributes and qualities - happiness, wealth, prestige, sophistication, success, maturity, athletic ability, virility and sexual satisfaction - that the misuse of alcohol destroys.

    For example, alcohol is linked with romance and sexual fulfillment, yet it is common knowledge that drunkenness often leads to sexual dysfunction. Less well known is the fact that people with drinking problems are seven times more likely to be separated or divorced.

    Such ads often target young people, women and people of color, since members of these groups often feel powerless and are eager to identify with "successful" groups in our society. These ads sometimes connect "prestige" beverages with the aura of the rich and powerful or the goals of women's liberation.

    Ads and products aimed at young people deserve special mention in these days when many preteens start drinking in junior high school. Cartoon and animal characters such as Spuds MacKenzie, Anheuser-Busch's canine mascot, are not as innocent as they appear. In one Christmas campaign, Spuds appeared in a Santa Claus suit, promoting 12-packs of Bud Light beer. In the summer of 1990 he was cavorting with ninjas, drawing on the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, a big hit with younger children.

    Ads that portray drinking as a passport to adulthood, coupled with transitional products such as high-proof milkshakes and chocolate sodas, can be very successful lures for young drinkers.

  9. Sports and alcohol go together.

  10. Alcohol consumption actually decreases athletic performance. However, numerous ads, like a Pabst Blue Ribbon poster showing a speeding bicyclist with a bottle of beer on her basket, wrongly imply that sports and alcohol are safely complementary activities. Others feature sponsorship of a wide range of sporting events or endorsements by sports stars.

  11. If these products were truly dangerous, the media would tell us.

  12. Most media are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them by spending $2 billion annually on advertising and promotion. Media coverage of the "war on drugs" seldom mentions the two major killers, alcohol and nicotine. From the coverage, one would assume that cocaine was the United States' most dangerous drug. However, while cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs are linked with about 20,000 deaths a year, alcohol contributes to at least 100,000 and cigarettes more than 390,000 - or more than 1,000 a day.

    Although many media feature occasional stories about alcoholism, they usually treat it as a personal problem and focus on individual treatment solutions. Reports that probe alcohol's role in violence and other chronic problems are rare, while the role advertising plays in encouraging its use is almost never discussed.

  13. Alcoholic beverage companies promote moderation in drinking.

  14. The current Budweiser "moderation" campaign says, "Know when to say when," as opposed to "Know when to say no." In the guise of a moderation message, this slogan actually suggests to young people that drinking beer is one way to demonstrate their control. It also perpetuates the myth that alcoholics are simply people who "don't know when to say when," irresponsibly engaging in willful misconduct, rather than people who are suffering from a disease that afflicts at least one in 10 drinkers.

    Most of these programs are designed to encourage young people not to drive drunk. Although this is a laudable goal, it is interesting to note that few of the alcohol industry programs discourage or even question drunkenness per se. The tragic result is that many young people feel it is perfectly all right to get drunk, as long as they do not get behind the wheel of a car.

    In any case, we might be better off without programs designed by the alcohol industry to promote ideas about "responsible" drinking that in fact subtly promote myths and damaging attitudes. For example, one program by Miller beer defines moderate drinking as up to four drinks a day. Copy for a Budweiser program called "The Buddy System" defines drunkenness as having "too much of a good time." Doesn't this imply that being sober is having a bad time, that being drunk and having a good time go together? Even the industry's "moderation" messages imply the advantages of heavy drinking.

    One of the chief symptoms of the disease of alcoholism is the denial that there is a problem. In general, as a society we tend to deny the illness and to support the alibi system of the alcoholic. Advertising encourages this denial.

    It may be impossible to prove conclusively that alcohol advertising affects consumption, but it clearly affects attitudes about drinking. The ads contribute to an environment of social acceptance of high-risk drinking and denial of related problems. In addition, media dependence on alcohol advertising discourages full and open discussion of the many problems associated with alcohol.

    A major comprehensive effort is needed to prevent alcohol-related problems. Such an effort must include education, mass media campaigns, increased availability of treatment programs, and more effective deterrence policies. It must also include public policy changes that take into account that the individual acts within a social, economic and cultural environment that profoundly influences his or her choices. Such changes would include raising taxes on alcohol, putting clearly legible warning labels on the bottles and regulating the advertising.

    Above all, we must become fully engaged in the struggle to solve alcohol-related problems. We must stop supporting the denial that is at the heart of the illness that alcohol advertising both perpetuates and depends upon both in the individual and in society as a whole.

    What can be done? We can investigate the extent to which the media are influenced by their dependence on alcohol advertising. We can consider the possibility of further restricting or banning all alcohol advertising, as some other countries have done. We can insist on equal time for information commercials in the broadcast media. We can raise the taxes on alcohol and use the extra revenue to fund programs to prevent and treat the illness and educate the public. We can become more aware of the real messages in the ads and work to teach their implications and consequences to those we love and care for.

Author Bio: 

Jean Kilbourne is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising. She is the creator of several award-winning films, including Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women, Calling the Shots: Advertising Alcohol, and Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession with Thinness. Her book Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel won the Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology. She is a Visiting Research Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women.