Alcohol advertising: what are they selling?
Words have power. Any suggestion that advertisements don’t influence people, or that the messages they communicate don’t matter, is at best naive and at worst an attempt to disguise the harms inherent in the way alcohol advertising is presented. It would be pointless for the alcohol industry to spend millions of dollars a year on alcohol advertising if that didn’t impact consumers. Apologists for the alcohol industry argue that the purpose of advertising is to affect brand choice and increase market share, rather than increase overall consumption. This may well be the case, but the question that this column asks is: aside from the product, what are alcohol ads really selling?
First, alcohol advertisements, in particular beer ads, are often laced with latent (or not so latent) sexism. Beer is targeted at a male audience, with ads that insult or alienate half the potential market. The gendering of a beverage is in itself strange- it promotes ideas of gender essentialism that one would hope are relics of the past. Many women enjoy beer, just as some men prefer a glass of pinot noir. Beer ads place at the centre of their universe the quintessential “kiwi bloke”, with themes of mate-ship, boorish behaviour, and sometimes just scantily clad women. Women, and men who don’t fit into this norm, are “othered”, as either the subject of mockery or objectification. The typical response to those who take offence at such ads is that it’s “just a joke”. Indeed, the Advertising Standards Authority has dismissed complaints about potentially offensive ads simply because they’re intended to be humorous.
But when a company resorts to making light of domestic violence (“The missus walked into a door- yeah right”), sexual harassment (“Her butt walked into my hand”), and child sexual abuse (“MJ touched me too”), they’re not just selling beer anymore. They’re selling the idea that it’s okay to make rape jokes. That it’s okay to make fun of vulnerable people in society, as long as your target market is laughing.
And the harm doesn’t end with words. There is a documented correlation between alcohol use and crime; for instance New Zealand police statistics state that alcohol is a factor in about a third of all family violence incidents. Similarly, the Department of Corrections has found that 75% of prisoners have abused or been dependent on alcohol. Of course, correlation does not necessarily mean alcohol plays a directly causative role in domestic violence and other crime. But it would be equally fallacious to discount it as a factor, as that would require the assumption that the lowered inhibitions associated with alcohol consumption have no effect on a person’s behaviour. On the other side of the coin, an associated problem is that when a crime is committed under the influence of alcohol, the offender and complainant may shift all the blame onto the alcohol, rather than addressing the offender’s individual responsibility for the crime.
This link is one example of the second broad problem with alcohol advertising. It presents alcohol as a risk-free product, normalises the idea that you can’t socialise without drinking, and associates it with healthy pursuits such as sport. The fact is, even when consumed in moderation, alcohol is addictive and has long-term effects on one’s health. People may prefer to risk such effects than be a teetotaller, but it is surely incumbent on the manufacturer of a dangerous product to not mislead people by suggesting those effects don’t exist. The problems associated with alcohol are not confined to a minority group of “problem drinkers”, yet the industry presents a glamorised, consequence-free picture of alcohol consumption.
Granted, the relationship between ads and society is not as simplistic as this analysis may appear. It’s not a case of ads presenting a message, then consumers mindlessly accepting that message. To an extent ads act as a mirror of society, framed in a way to appeal to their target audience by tapping into social norms and widely-held beliefs. Perhaps beer companies have discovered that themes of gender equality and respecting women are not necessarily relevant to its target market, and present their ads accordingly? On this approach, alcohol ads could be seen as an effect, rather than a cause, of attitudes about gender identity and alcohol consumption.
But a more nuanced approach recognises the interaction between media and society- the Tui “yeah right” catch-phrase is a good example of how advertising messages become embedded in the cultural consciousness. Ads not only reflect, but encourage and perpetuate social attitudes. And if those attitudes are damaging, that’s an issue.
The question becomes, what should be done about alcohol advertising? It is clear that the harms associated with alcohol are multi-faceted, and there is no “quick fix” to what is essentially a cultural issue. But a good place to start is to address advertising as a significant factor in perpetuating those harms. Granted, there’s no law against being a sexist binge-drinker, and alcohol companies are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression. But when companies are marketing a product that causes such widespread harm as alcohol does, there must be a measure of social responsibility exercised.
There are guidelines for alcohol advertising, but ads often fall through the cracks under the guise of humour. Ostensibly, alcohol ads are not permitted to “glamorise liquor or association with it”, or “be sexually provocative or suggestive”, yet this is laxly enforced. The guidelines were also watered down in 2011, when the ASA removed the guideline preventing “unduly masculine themes" from being portrayed. This guideline was in the original code to promote social responsibility given the harms associated with alcohol, including violence towards women.
Rather than imposing stricter advertising guidelines, we could require alcohol products to have warning labels, as has been attempted overseas. But, in light of studies suggesting that warning labels and partial bans are ineffective, perhaps the best way to drive the change needed is to follow the precedent of tobacco regulation and ban alcohol advertising altogether. This is a positive first step in ending the harmful messages being dispensed to us by the alcohol industry.
*Sarah Keast recently graduated from the University of Canterbury with a conjoint Law/Arts degree, and enjoys craft beer in moderation.