How does the alcohol industry use International Women’s Day to sell its products to women? In this blog, Amanda Marie Atkinson, Beth Meadows, Mwaka Nanyangwe, and Harry Sumnall from the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University explore gendered alcohol marketing.
International Women’s Day (IWD) is an annual event held on 8 March, which aims to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of all women, raise awareness of gender-based bias and encourage action for gender equality across the world. Throughout the 20th and 21st century, IWD has undergone many transformations and a more recent development is the increasing commodification of the event, and of feminism more generally, by businesses, including the alcohol industry. This forms part of what is commonly referred to as ‘brand activism’ or ‘cause marketing’, whereby brands associate themselves with social movements and campaigns (e.g. IWD, Black Lives Matter movement and Pride). This may produce mutual benefits, but from the perspective of industry, this is an attempt to appeal to the values of certain sections of their consumer base, including women.
The targeting of women by the alcohol industry and the depiction of women to promote products is nothing new. An Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded study we are currently conducting shows evidence of both continuation and change in how women are targeted and represented. The research suggests a move away from sexist content such as the (hyper)sexualisation of women’s bodies, and an increasing use of gender equality and empowerment messaging. For example, The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a consumer organisation in the UK that hosts regular beer festivals across the country, recently banned sexist marketing that sexualises and demeans women, declaring that they were ‘taking a stance’ against outdated and discriminatory attitudes, while also increasing alcohol sales among women. Consumers are now less likely to see real ale brands such as ‘Top Totty’ and ‘Trashy Blonde’ and more likely to encounter ‘Boss’ beer, marketed through the use of feminist iconography (e.g. a raised fist).
Our research found many other examples of the commodification of feminism in more mainstream alcohol marketing activity. This includes brands simply posting content on social media to celebrate women on International Women’s Day (e.g. ‘Today and everyday, we raise a glass to women all over the globe. #InternationalWomensDay’, Guinness), celebrating the achievements of female staff (e.g. Happy International Women’s day! Here’s some of our ladies who keep #BACARDI moving) and specific campaigns which are presented as attempts at addressing gender inequality. One example is the Smirnoff Equalising Music Campaign that aims to raise awareness of women’s under representation in the music industry. Other examples include Brew Dog’s Bloody Good Beer, which celebrated the passing a Bill in Scotland that will make menstrual products free to all who need them, after years of campaigning by predominantly female led activist groups. All proceeds are being donated to one such group, The Bloody Good Period. Stella Artois has also collaborated with Water.org and actor Matt Damon, promoting the sale of their limited-edition drinking vessel through the promise that proceeds will help provide 5 years of clean water to women in the developing world. This International Women’s Day, consumers can even enjoy one of the many feminist cocktails provided in the publication ‘Free the Tipple’, which provides ‘Kickass Cocktails Inspired by Iconic Women’. Examples include the ‘Maya Angelou’, ‘Beyoncé’ and the ‘Margaret Attwood’.
Moreover, in light of increased awareness of systemic racism through the Black Lives Matter movement, some alcohol brands are now aligning themselves with issues effecting Black women specifically. For example, Barefoot’s Purple Light and #WeStanForHer projects in the US, which celebrate Black women and inclusivity, and promote economic equality for Black women through a small grants scheme, stereotypically for beauty based businesses. Another interesting theme is the recent recognition by alcohol brands of a societal shifts in views towards gender, with brands such as Barefoot collaborating with Ru Paul’s Drag Race (#MarchOnward), and Smirnoff and Absolut Vodka promoting the rights of Trans people and the concept of gender as one that involves identities beyond a binary of male and female.
However, it is not all good news for gender equality, and our research shows that marketing continues to be dominated by stereotypical imagery and narrow definitions of femininity. This includes the ‘pinkification’ of products, the use of glitter and floral images, and a focus on appearance such as competitions to win accessories such as make up and fake tan. The development of low and reduced calorie products are also worthy of mention, for example Skinny beer, which draw on women’s insecurities and anxieties over body image and the ideal of female slimness to influence brand choice. Such marketing is significant, as research shows that particular alcoholic drinks and brands are important to women’s gender identity-making and in symbolising femininity, and that calorie counting forms a key feature of women’s decisions around drinking.
The commodification of feminism by the alcohol industry can provide an opportunity to spread important messages for social change, and engage with people who may otherwise reject feminism. However, commodification may also dilute progressive messages, oversimplify complex issues into marketing straplines, and may fail to disrupt unequal power relations, instead merely providing an opportunity for corporations to vicariously promote brand sales and increase profit. Whilst both arguments may contain elements of truth, in the case of alcohol, it is important to remember that it is ‘no ordinary commodity’ and that alcohol is directly linked to many illnesses that affect women; including breast cancer. For some, women’s alcohol use has long been associated with empowerment, reflecting increased economic independence and freedom to participate in and enjoy leisure activities once dominated by men. It is important to recognise these views, yet the use of gender-equality messaging to promote a potentially harmful consumer product also requires scrutiny. Although recent shifts away from overtly sexist messaging is welcomed, the use of gender equality messages may simply be an opportunity for brands to increase sales, whilst failing to meaningfully address the key issues that underlie these campaigns, including the structural gender inequalities at play in society that disadvantage women, including those that in public drinking spaces such as sexual harassment and assault. These are all important questions we will be exploring in our ongoing ESRC research, which will include primary research with consumers of all genders.
To find out more visit equalisenightlifeproject.com.
Written by Amanda Marie Atkinson, Beth Meadows, Mwaka Nanyangwe, and Harry Sumnall, the Public Health Institute Liverpool John Moores University
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.