‘They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff’

Claire Blank writes for Soberistas – an insight into the marketing strategies employed by the alcohol industry

In 2009 the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC) carried out an analysis of a number of the alcohol industry’s internal advertising and marketing documents. The documents had been obtained by the Commons Health Select Committee as part of its investigation into the conduct of the UK alcohol industry. The report which was subsequently published by the AERC was entitled ‘They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff’ and was carried out by Professor Gerard Hastings of the University of Stirling and the Open University.

Before discussing the report in more detail, here’s what the Advertising Standard’s Agency’s code of practice says in relation to marketing alcohol. The code dictates that alcohol advertising must not;

a)      Link alcohol with seduction, sex or social success

b)      Link alcohol with irresponsible, anti-social, tough or daring behaviour

c)       Show alcohol being served irresponsibly

d)      Show people drinking and behaving in an adolescent or juvenile way, or reflecting the culture of people aged less than 18 years

As a university student in the 1990s, I grew up in an environment where the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol was entirely normal. I regularly took part in the University of Sheffield’s annual Rag Week ‘Pyjama Jump’ which was ostensibly a charity event but was, in reality, an organised mass piss-up. During the November event, the sight of eighteen-year-old boys dressed in women’s underwear and throwing up in the streets was par for the course, as were risky sexual encounters in pub toilets, girls flashing their breasts, and a plethora of booze-induced injuries. The jolly japes were brought to a close in the academic year 1996-1997, on the advice of the police and with the safety of students in mind.

Why I never stopped to question this behaviour was largely down to the fact that it was presented to me as normal. A few years later, following the end of my degree and my first graduate position, the excessive boozing continued apace – albeit with an aura of respectability. Never outwardly drunk, but regularly imbibing far more than the recommended government guidelines, alcohol was by now a staple part of life for me and my friendship group.

It was only after the birth of my son in my mid-thirties that I began to question my consumption. Partly as a result of a growing interest in fitness and my health, I then took steps to dramatically reduce the amount of alcohol that I drank.

I, along with many other women of my generation, have come to drink heavily largely as a result of the normalization of alcohol within western society, and in particular owing to our being swayed by the frighteningly successful advertising campaigns of the alcohol industry giants.

Professor Hasting’s report (despite it being no great surprise that alcohol manufacturers are intent on maximising the saleability of their products) highlights some questionable practices indeed. Hastings’ analysis shows that in some cases, the aim is not to ensure that drinkers switch from one brand to another, but rather it is to encourage new consumers to jump aboard the booze train. Research conducted on behalf of WKD found that there was a need to appeal to the ‘up-and-coming generation’ through the development of new products.

In 1986 when I was aged thirteen, Taunton launched Diamond White cider and it quickly became the beverage of choice amongst my circle of underage drinking friends. Boasting an ABV of 8.2%, Diamond White comfortably took hold of a 30% market share, 60% of their customers being female. Several years later, my friends and I transferred our booze allegiances to ‘K’ cider, attractively presented in a matt black bottle with a striking red letter ‘K’ on the label. In an article dated June, 1993, The Independent newspaper described cider as being ‘backed by slick advertising campaigns and packaged in shapes and colours designed to attract the young. Bottled cider is being presented as a product to be seen quaffing in the pub.’

The alcohol marketers certainly worked their magic on me. By the age of eighteen, shy and somewhat lacking in confidence, I was a regular binge-drinker of cider, secure in the knowledge that this particular choice of beverage helped me to fit in, appear sophisticated and feel more outgoing.

Professor Hastings’ report makes it clear that the student demographic, and especially freshers, represents a key target audience for several alcohol brands. In the documents, WKD defined its typical consumer as ‘Aged 18-25, chavs and students’ while Carling proposed a greater focus on students as ‘a core recruitment audience.’ Lambrini in 2004/5 suggested a ‘launch in Fresher’s Week, to act as a hit on students.’ The language employed in many of the marketing documents referred to in the AERC report is clearly aimed at the youth market, with terminology such as ‘lads’, ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ being commonplace.

Professor Hastings’ analysis demonstrates that in many instances, not only do the alcohol marketers actively attempt to draw in the young, but once their attention has been caught, they are encouraged to drink to excess. Numerous references to ‘getting pissed’, ‘blasted’, and ‘getting messy’ are made throughout the documents, with one brand, Sidekick, referring to shots being used to ‘crank up the evening’, ‘accelerate the process of getting drunk’, and as being a useful method of reducing the volume of liquid required in becoming inebriated.

The strategizing utilised to persuade people to begin their drinking careers in earnest at a young age does not stop with the kind of tactics described above. The widespread sponsorship of events by alcohol companies is now a routinely-used marketing tool – think Diageo’s creation, ‘Arthur’s Day’ in Ireland, or Carling’s sponsorship of football and music events. As Hastings points out, ‘…producers and agencies regard sponsorship as a powerful strategy for building brand awareness and attracting new recruits to the product.’

For me, the most sinister example of the way in which the alcohol industry is trying to engage with and pull in a fresh, new audience lies in its use of new media. Whilst technically, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency, they are notoriously difficult to monitor. Hastings’ report highlights how both WKD and Smirnoff (et al) have latched on to new media as an effective way to reach the younger potential consumer. A quick scan through WKD’s current followers on Twitter reveals that many are below the age of eighteen. Take Daisy for instance, who refers to being in Year Ten (aged fourteen/fifteen), Shann who states that she is just thirteen, and Aaliyah, who is pictured dressed in her school uniform and professes her love of Disney and Nickelodeon.

Last week, a BBC Radio 5 Live investigation revealed a considerable increase in the number of children who were admitted to A&E units across the UK last year following excessive alcohol consumption – in total, 6,500 under-18s during the period 2012-3. Frighteningly, 293 children aged eleven or under attended A&E with alcohol-related conditions. Despite statistical evidence pointing towards a reduction in the numbers of children drinking now than several years ago, it would appear that the ones who are drinking are doing so in vaster quantities. And girls are engaging in such behaviour in greater numbers than their teenage male counterparts, a reversal of the past trend.

Children learn behaviour from a variety of different sources, but one thing is for certain – if we are witnessing a rise in the damaged health of the younger generations as a direct result of alcohol, the patterns of binge-drinking in the UK are not being curbed: rather, they are intensifying. Despite Professor Hastings’ report being four years old, perhaps now is a good time to take another look at his findings and put in place tougher restrictions that the alcohol industry must adhere to. Let’s stop pretending that excessive alcohol consumption is normal and OK – it isn’t.

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