Alcohol Marketing, Craft Beer, and Responsible Drinking

[UPDATE: Press release. Much clearer than the Hour article…]

This could potentially be big for craft beer. A code of ethics for alcohol adverts. – News – Alcohol marketing becomes ethical

A bit like video game manufacturer who propose rating systems for their own games, members of the alcoholic beverage industry in Quebec are trying to regulate their own advertising practises. According to the article:

Under the new code, the following has been forbidden:

  • Using alcohol content as a sales argument
  • Associating alcohol with violent or asocial behaviour, or with illicit drugs
  • Sexism or the association of the product with sexual performance, sexual attraction or popularity
  • Implications that the product improves physical or intellectual capacities, or has health benefits
  • Encouraging drinking games or excessive drinking
  • Making the product particularly attractive to people under 18
  • Showing images of people who look younger than 25
  • Showing disrespect for those who choose not to drink

By proposing such a code of ethics, the industry may possibly bypass government regulation. It also shows that its members are willing to go some distance in changing their practises.

Educ’alcool‘s message, associating responsible (moderate) drinking with taste, is well-established in Quebec culture and this code goes in the same line. By contrast, in the U.S., advocacy for responsible drinking is criticized by academics and health specialists. IMHO, this criticism has the effect of encouraging younger people to binge drink, with sad consequences. Educ’alcool and Quebec’s alcoholic beverage industry are probably trying to avoid such a situation. Although it might sound counter-intuitive, binge drinking is not beneficial to their bottom line. After all, nobody wants to get sued for the death of any of consumers.

The main apparent target of this code is beer advertising, especially on television. While Quebec has its share of beer ads with scantily clad women, even ads for some of InBev’s Labatt products are somewhat more subtle. In fact, the French-speaking versions of commercials for Labatt bleue have, over the years, represented an alternative to the typical "beer gets you laid" message. As typical of Quebec culture, these ads have used humour to carry their message, often with puns and other word play. For instance, one of the most recent ads uses a zeugma and the names of several parts of Quebec (strengthening the association between the beer and Quebec cultural identity). It also describes the beer in its association with food.

Which brings me to the interesting point about craft beer. While beer advertisement is typically full of what this new code of ethics seeks to prohibit, craft beer positions itself in exactly the same line as Educ’alcool and this code of ethics: taste and responsible drinking. The only television ads I’ve seen for craft beer were made by Boston Beer company for their Samuel Adams products. These ads usually emphasize the brewing craft itself and have been discussed by many members of the craft beer crowd. An important point is that they’re quite effective at delivering the message about taste, quality, sophistication, and responsibility. (Actually, I wore a Samuel Adams t-shirt yesterday, after reading about the new code of ethics. Didn’t even notice the possible connection!)

Any craft beer person will argue that craft beer always wins on taste. So if the new marketing message needs to focus on taste, craft beer wins.

It’s quite striking that the code of ethics mentions people looking older than 25. IMHO, it’s overstating the case a bit. IMHO, nothing is to be gained by avoiding the portrayal of members of the 18-25yo age bracket in advertising for responsible drinking. This demographic is not only very important for the alcohol industry but it’s one which should be targeted by the responsible drinking movement. Educ’alcool does target people who are even younger than that, so that they "do the right thing" once they’re old enough to drink, but there’s no reason to let people down once they start drinking. Eighteen-year-olds are not only learning the value of responsible drinking, they’re integrating responsible drinking in their social lives. And they’re learning how to taste alcoholic beverages.

Apart from age, characteristics of craft beer people are usually the same as those of the target market for beer in general. But their emphasis is really: taste, distinctiveness, sophistication, and responsibility. Again, perfect for the new type of ads.

Speaking of beer marketing, the issue of Montreal’s Hour indie weekly also has a piece on the importance of beer sponsorships for the success of events in the city. Coincidence?

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5 thoughts on “Alcohol Marketing, Craft Beer, and Responsible Drinking”

  1. All sorts of treasures here for me to find.

    It’s TRUE that “[a]ny craft beer person will argue that craft beer always wins on taste.” I will argue that.

    It’s FALSE that “if the new marketing message needs to focus on taste, craft beer wins.”

    Younguns in my recent experience seem to prefer Bud Lite. Clearly they can’t be drinking it for the taste, right? Yet it’s not actually the most efficient way to get drunk, as any serious wino will tell you. What you want’s a “40,” and King Cobra even kills Bud Lite for taste by craft beer standards.

    No, these carnalsewers of crap can actually make fine taste discriminations between Bud, Coors and Miller Lite and dog help us, they choose based on taste. Granted, it’s a taste educated in relation to local knowledges and norms; but aren’t they all.

    I think the most we could hope for is that for at least some of the consuming public, Bud or Labatt’s function as ‘gateway’ beers to the stuff we think is good.

  2. @Carl
    Sorry for the delay. Was moving from TX to Qc.
    I guess I should amend the two statements you quote. But what I mean by “win on taste” isn’t really about “being preferred by anyone.” I’m referring more to a practice of hedonistic tasting. BudMillCoors is successful at consistency in taste. Craft beer is successful at taste complexity and diversity.
    I do understand what you mean about younger people’s tastes and it’s probably accurate. My hope, though, is that responsible drinking can be taught using a multi-pronged approach which does include such things as a practice to tasting. Sure, some people might prefer the taste of Bud over craft beer the same way some people prefer McDonald’s or Subway’s over well-crafted food. But making it trendy for people to expand your taste horizons can have a very positive impact in terms of responsible consumption of alcohol and food in general.
    Or maybe I’m just an idealist.

  3. No, I’ll agree that’s worth a try. There are class and gender issues here that crosscut the ideal – norms of robust masculinity, the interest in distinction that makes elite tastes and practices ‘not for the likes of us’, as Bourdieu would say – and furthermore a series of interests in transgression as such that need to be taken into account. But I’m in favor of subtle influence rather than disciplinary regulation. Part of the trick is being smart about where and how we set the thresholds of transgression, for example.

    It’s lovely to have you back. All the best getting settled back in.

  4. @Carl
    Nice Bourdieu angle, as usual. He had something to say about wine and milk which kind of fits with craft beer. What I envision is akin to a “trend.” Craft beer can be both cool and sophisticated. Avoiding elitism (associated with wine, in North America) while pushing the complexity. Not that everyone would submit to the influence of the beer geek culture. But it could make enough of a difference to tip the scale.
    There’s a lot to say about “geek culture going mainstream.” Beer geek culture is part of it. Not that Bud-drinkers will suddenly join craft beer geeks. But there’s a way to get all sorts of people (sorority girls, businesspeople, computer geeks, NASCAR fans, soccer moms…) interested in respecting alcohol. Marketing might not be the best way but, as you say, it’s worth a try. Or, at least, some consideration.
    Thanks for the comments and welcome!

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