The Drip Feed

Alcohol marketing is big business, but what is it for?  If the drinks industry is to be believed, advertising doesn’t make people drink more: it just encourages them to choose one brand over another.  If health campaigners are to be believed, alcohol marketing causes people to both start drinking earlier, to drink more frequently and to have more positive expectations about alcohol. Meanwhile, social researchers point out that advertising operates within a complex range of cultural and economic drivers and that it is extremely difficult to bracket off the impact of marketing from the other contextual influences that shape people’s beliefs and behaviours around drink.

In the last few weeks, a number of reports have been published calling for the stricter regulation – or outlawing – of alcohol marketing (see here, here and here). For health lobbyists, alcohol marketing is fundamentally problematic precisely because alcohol is not an ‘ordinary commodity’.  If, as they would argue, the goal of public policy should be to reduce consumption then all marketing is detrimental.  For drinks producers, such calls ignore the social value of alcohol, impinge unjustly on individual freedom, and overlook the fact that marketing is designed to promote brand awareness and loyalty, not increase overall consumption.  To many people the last claim may sound like equivocation, for what is the point of advertising if not to make people consume more?  However, the question of value is critical: do the potential social harms of alcohol outweigh our individual rights as consumers, or the corporate right of businesses to advertise their products?

A Bill recently debated in the House of Commons proposed restricting marketing messages to ‘factual and verifiable statements about the product such as alcoholic strength, composition and place of origin’.  The Bill failed to become law, but the attempt clearly parallels the move towards plain labelling for cigarettes (as Pamela Pennock has shown, the tobacco and alcohol health movements have long overlapped).  Of course, ‘factual’ advertising runs against the whole purpose of marketing – which is to imbue actuality with a constructed associative glow.  Drinks companies understand this as well as any other business, and have long been ahead of the game in constructing powerfully associative brands.  Guinness’ use of the Brian Boru harp from the 1860s, for instance, was a remarkable piece of early branding, establishing an association with mythic Irishness that remains central to the Guinness identity today.  In Britain, the iconic Bass Triangle was the first trademark to be registered under the 1875 Trade Mark Registration Act.

In the 1930s, many British brewers saw marketing as critical to stemming a decline in consumption that had been triggered during World War One.  The famous ‘Guinness is Good for You” and “Guinness for Strength” adverts of the period were a challenge to the temperance argument that alcohol was fatal to the manufacturing strength of the nation.  They also spawned one of the other great myths of the Guinness brand – that stout had uniquely health-giving properties, despite containing precisely the same basic ingredients as all other beers.

In 1931, a Royal Commission on Licensing estimated around £2 million was being spent on alcohol advertising, and in 1933, British brewers financed a multi-million pound marketing campaign under the slogan “Beer is Best”.  Launching the project, the then Chairman of the Brewers Society Sir Edgar Sanders said the campaign should ‘get the beer-drinking habit instilled into thousands, almost millions, of young men who do not at present know the taste of beer.’  It isn’t clear that it achieved its goal.  Ten years later, Mass Observation warned that in Britain ‘the pub as a cultural institution is declining’ and beer sales remained (like much of the beer itself) flat.

The interwar years wouldn’t be the last time the British drinks industry felt the need to re-establish its role in youth culture.  In the late 1980s, as the rave scene developed, alcohol became distinctly uncool: perceived by many clubbers as a loutish, sense-depriving drug compared to the hip, sparkling alternative of Ecstasy. A number of British academics (including Alasdair Forsyth, Fiona Measham and Phil Hadfield) have argued that this triggered the development of new brands (especially new ‘alcopops’), new marketing imagery culled from the club scene, and new point-of-sale promotions (such as ‘shot girls’) which blurred the line between alcohol and illicit party drugs to an unprecedented degree.

Recently, alcohol marketing has been undergoing another transformation.  Over the decades, alcohol advertising has gone through various stylistic phases, each reflecting the challenges presented by the social trends of the time.  However, while the messages may have mutated, the basic architecture of communication has not.  From newspaper adverts to television and even conventional websites, marketing has essentially been a unidirectional process.  That is to say, highly constructed, largely self-contained messages have been broadcast to consumers who, however unpredictable their interpretation of those messages may be, have been largely passive in regard to the content of the message itself.

The advent of social media has changed this dramatically.  Rather than rely on single high-impact adverts, social media marketing is all about generating ‘conversation’.  Getting potential consumers to “like”, follow, post, retweet and tag is the measure of success, and the signs are that this is where alcohol marketing – along with plenty of other sectors – sees the digital future.  In 2011, the Head of Digital at Diageo stated that ‘the days of lavish $200,000 websites are over‘, and later that year Diageo announced plans to step up its multimillion dollar partnership with Facebook.

In an exploratory study, recently published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, I attempted to document some of the trends which characterise marketing in this new era.  These involved various techniques designed to encourage the production of user-generated content and the active ‘liking’ of Facebook pages.  Competitions, quizzes and giveaways were commonplace, as was the cross-platform promotion of real-world events ranging from sponsored fashion shows to Smirnoff’s global Nightlife Exchange Project.  Underpinning all this was the attempt to attract consumers to online ‘conversations’ within branded environments, and the attempt to make online brand engagement part of consumers’ everyday routine.

Importantly, creating conversations about alcohol brands doesn’t necessarily mean creating conversations about alcohol; indeed, some of the most active social media campaigns (such as Fosters’ Funny, or a comic ‘construction experiment’ run by the cider brand Bulmers) involved virtually no mention of drinking at all.  Instead, the ‘sticky content’ of the sites in question (and who wouldn’t go back to a page offering exclusive new episodes of the Fast Show or Alan Partridge?) served mainly to generate “likes” – which both encourage brand identification and, crucially, allow access to the profile data of users.

By contrast, other brands used their walls and feeds to more explicitly nudge consumers towards the bar.  Friday evenings tended to produce a deluge of posts suggesting it might be time for a drink; so too did special occasions and sports events.  Wednesdays also provided cause for celebration – cresting ‘hump day’ was often presented as an excuse for a drink.  Bacardi’s fondness for ‘Mojito Monday’ took this further, with their Twitter feed regularly reminding followers that Monday was a good time to break out the rum.  Not that this prevented producers from sending occasional ‘drink responsibly’ messages.  Indeed, Bacardi neatly combined a call for early-week spirits drinking and moderation in one memorable tweet which said simply:

I’ve never found Mondays to be much of a reason to celebrate, but the attempt to routinise consumption, while maintaining the ‘celebratory’ connotations of drinking, is a common feature of alcohol marketing.  Furthermore, it’s an idea that makes particular sense in the era of Facebook and Twitter: after all, isn’t much of our social media engagement a strange conflation of the banal and the special?  Perhaps there’s something of the zeitgeist in all this.

Capturing the zeitgeist, though, is like nailing jelly to the wall – and so is analysing social media.  I found the process of archiving tweets and wall posts decidedly weird – they are by nature ephemeral and bantering, so in tracking them for a number of weeks I felt like I was engaged in a kind of joyless cyber-stalking.  However, social media marketing is very big business and any attempt to understand marketing trends will need to involve this kind of work.

Though limited in scope, my study raised questions about the cumbersome nature of current regulatory regimes – not so much regarding targeting underage drinkers (which is a known concern, and one addressed in most self-regulatory codes) but whether slow, complaints-led procedures could possibly keep pace with messages that had an impact time of hours and days.  More fundamentally, though, it raised questions about drip-feed marketing and the routinisation of drinking.  Is it, for instance, a problem if marketing seeks to routinise consumption as governments (and industry-backed responsible drinking bodies such as Drinkaware) talk of de-normalising daily drinking?  Is it a problem if marketing seeks to embed drink-related conversations into the routine social media activities of consumers, so that alcohol permeates the daily online world?  Tackling those questions, inevitably, takes us back to bigger questions of freedom, value, and whether alcohol is an ‘ordinary commodity’ or not.  In that sense, it reminds us that debates over marketing are not really about what marketers are trying to achieve, but the status of alcohol as a social good.  And that is a very big debate indeed.