In the myriad of alcohol advertisements that have graced our culture over the last few decades, there is always a commonality: the reminder to “drink responsibly.” As ambiguous as it is pervasive, this message permeates the alcohol industry as a marketing tactic aimed not at advocating sensible imbibing, but at eliciting consumer loyalty to brands associated with such slogans. Despite the superficial sheen of promoting safer drinking habits, no amount of feigned urging towards responsibility can camouflage the flagrant hypocrisy the alcohol industry is guilty of in its advertising.
Nebulous and ill-defined, the ubiquitous “drink responsibly” directive fails to clarify what responsible drinking is and neglects to address its relevance. Instead, consumers are left with a vague impression of what it means to engage in reasonable drinking practices, and often that impression is geared much more towards establishing brand loyalty than promoting public health.
There is a staggering level of deception employed in the advertising of alcohol. The responsibility paradigm belies the economic objective of the alcohol industry, which is centered solely on profit. Conscientious drinking habits involve moderation and avoiding the excessive, which would mean a significant plummet in product sales were the concept of “responsible drinking” to actually be imposed. Despite what their advertisements proclaim, the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Skyy Vodka don’t actually want you to drink responsibly because that would mean you are buying less of their product.
The phrase “drink responsibly” began appearing in advertisements in the early 1980s, after President Reagan established the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving (PCDD) in response to the epidemic of drunk driving incidents. The commission sought to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving and promote healthier attitudes towards alcohol consumption, and eventually resulted in the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which officially raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. In the wake of this massive cultural shift, alcohol advertisers began inserting the phrase “drink responsibly” into their digital and print advertisements in hopes of saving face in the public opinion. For over 30 years now the vast majority of alcohol ads have been accompanied by the phrase “drink responsibly,” but its prevalence is not necessarily reflective of success.
Booze advertisements notoriously promote images of a “good time,” most often featuring aesthetically pleasing people (women, specifically) engaging in booze-addled revelry in the most fabricated of idealistic settings. The format implies that merrymaking is exponentially increased with the presence of alcohol, and that the consumption of specific brands will surely result in the consumer’s attainment of the implied glamour created by the ads. This marketing strategy creates these false narratives of the symbiotic relationship between alcohol and enjoyment, which utterly contradicts the proposed logic in moderate drinking. The bulk of capitalist advertising follows a trend of “more, more, more,” thus rendering the promotion of restraint in a consumer-driven market entirely fallacious.
In a 2012 study from Alcohol Justice, an organization aimed at exposing and regulating the flaws in alcohol commerce, researchers asserted that industry pretenses of responsible drinking are counterproductive because they serve to “…increase intent to use the product instead of decreasing alcohol-related harm.” As a result of these findings, the organization advocates for stricter regulations of the alcohol industry (one of the largest American industries that remains self-regulated) in hopes of raising awareness of the true implications of alcohol use.
Perhaps the best analysis of the hypocrisy of alcohol advertisements can be attributed to animated sitcom South Park. Already a veritable steamroller of pop culture skewering, this mock-up of alcohol ads from the 2014 episode “Freemium Isn’t Free” highlights the absurdity of sexually saturated and socially unrealistic ads, all in the space of 26 seconds:
Though the ad is intended to be a parody, it is disturbingly accurate in its satirization of alcohol advertisements: glorifying booze-addled decadence while reminding consumers to “be responsible” in their hedonism. Because that logic is just flawless.
And until alcohol advertisers can curb their heinous hypocrisy, the mainstream will continue to be flooded with conflicting images of inebriation as we strive to become a “nation of responsible drinkers” (or at least that’s what Anheuser-Busch wants you to think it’s up to).