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"Absolut Magic" proclaims an ad for a popular vodka. "Paradise found," headlines another. "Fairy tales can come true" says a third.
These are the myths that the alcohol industry wants us to believe. Messages like these want to convince people that alcohol is magic. These ads tell us that alcohol can make us successful, sophisticated and even sexy. Without it, life is dull, ordinary and boring.
Everyone wants to believe in happy endings. But as most of us know, for many people alcohol is more like a horror story than a fairy tale. We are surrounded by messages that drinking is fun, sexy, desirable and harmless. It's easy to identify these messages when they appear in advertisements and commercials, but we also get less obvious messages from other media – in films, music videos, television shows, sporting events and even in songs. This is because many media companies depend on alcohol advertising for a large share of their profits. As a result, alcohol use is often glorified in the media and alcohol problems are seldom seen.
Alcohol is related to parties, good times, celebrations and fun, but it is also related to murder, suicide, car accidents, unemployment, and child abuse. Of course, you never see alcohol's negative side in ads. Advertisements are created to sell products, so it makes sense that advertisers are only going to promote positive messages about drinking. But when the product is the nation's number one drug, people should pay attention to the negative side.
Most people know that alcohol can cause problems. But did you know that 10 percent of all deaths in the United States - including half of all murders and at least one quarter of all suicides - are related to alcohol? It costs over $100 billion each year to deal with the negative consequences of drinking.
Meanwhile, the alcohol industry spends more than $3 billion a year on advertising and promotion to make sure that drinkers keep spending money on alcoholic beverages. Problem drinkers and young people are their primary targets.
Of course, the alcohol industry disagrees with this claim. Over and over again, alcohol industry executives state that they are not trying to create new or heavier drinkers. Instead, they say they only want people who already drink to switch to their brand and to drink it in moderation. However, many researchers who study alcohol advertising disagree. In fact, they believe the opposite: that alcohol advertising is specifically designed to recruit new, young users and to promote heavy consumption of their products.
Did You Know?
Ten percent of drinkers consume over sixty percent of all the alcohol sold.
Indeed, telling people to drink moderately doesn't make good business sense for the alcohol industry. Thus, if all drinkers did drink moderately, alcohol companies would lose nearly half the income earned from sales of beer, wine and spirits.
In fact, if every adult in North America drank according to the U.S. federal guidelines of what is low-risk drinking (which is no more than two drinks a day for a man and no more than one drink a day for a woman), alcohol industry sales would be cut by 80 per cent. Although the alcohol companies claim they want people to drink "responsibly," the truth is that "responsible" drinking would destroy them.
It's unlikely that industry executives want this to happen. In fact, research has shown that advertisers deliberately target the heavy drinker and create ads designed to appeal to him or her. As with any product, the heavy user is the best customer. But, when the product is a drug, the heavy user is often an addict.
Not all problem drinkers are alcoholics and not all teenagers drink. But teens who drink are more likely than adults to binge drink, making young people a lucrative market for alcohol producers.
The most widely used illegal drug in North America is beer, since it is the drug of choice for young people. Underage drinkers account for 12 per cent of all alcohol sales.
According to the 1989 National Institute on Drug Abusesurvey of high school seniors, 33 per cent of students reportedthat they had consumed five or more drinks on one occasion over theprevious two weeks. This group is vulnerable to ad campaigns thatpresent heavy drinking as fun and normal.
The primary purpose of the mass media is to deliver audiences to advertisers. In fact, magazines, radio stations and TV stations work hard to attract advertising dollars from all kinds of companies, including those that sell alcoholic beverages.
In the ad shown here, Cosmopolitan is trying to convince the alcohol industry to advertise alcohol in its magazine. The ad reads:
"Cosmopolitan readers drank 21,794,000 glasses of beer in the last week: Isn't it time you gave Cosmopolitan a shot?"
One of the main 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 advertising encourages this denial. It may be impossible to prove beyond all doubt that alcohol advertising affects whether or not people drink, but it clearly affects attitudes about drinking. Ads for alcohol contribute to an environment of social acceptance of high-risk drinking and denial of related problems.
1. Drinking is a risk-free activity.
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.
2. You can't survive without drinking.
"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.
3. Problem drinking behaviors are normal.
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."
4. Alcohol is a magic potion that can transform you.
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.
5. Sports and alcohol go together.
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.
6. If these products were truly dangerous, the media would tell us.
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.
7. Alcoholic beverage companies promote moderation in drinking.
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.
In addition, media dependence on revenues from alcohol advertising discourages full and open discussion of the many problems associated with drinking.
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. And we can become more aware of the real messages in the ads and raise awareness about their implications and often tragic consequences.
Jean Kilbourne, a visiting scholar at Wellesley College and member of the board of directors of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, lectures internationally. Her films include Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women and the new Advertising Alcohol: Calling the Shots.
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