I remember the first time I tried a chilled bottle of lemonade-and-vodka at a backyard barbecue for our running group many summers ago. Fantastic! It was such a hot afternoon, I had another icy cold one immediately after the first. I may have had a couple more, in fact – they were that good. And, best of all, they didn’t even taste like real alcohol! Now a recent study* published in the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Public Health investigates the sophisticated public relations and marketing strategies that industry is using to re-make the image of distilled spirits like my lemonade-and-vodka to specifically target underage drinkers.
James Mosher‘s journal article, “Joe Camel in a Bottle: Diageo, the Smirnoff Brand, and the Transformation of the Youth Alcohol Market”, reports on a case study of the Smirnoff brand to illustrate these strategies.
Smirnoff’s maker, Diageo, is a global liquor company with about $15 billion in revenues. In 2011, it was the world’s largest marketer of alcoholic beverages (including Smirnoff, Crown Royal, Johnny Walker, Guinness and Jose Cuervo).
Mosher’s report begins by reminding us that back in the early 1990s, beer was the runaway favorite alcoholic beverage for binge drinking among junior high and high school students.
Distilled spirits – or “hard liquor” – with their harsher taste, were considered the preferred drink of an older, aging market. Beer could also be advertised on television and sold in convenience stores, unlike distilled spirits. These factors gave beer makers widespread access to a younger market, but limited distilled spirits manufacturers’ access to youth, blocking their ability to grow their future market.
To gain access to this important youth market, in 1999 Smirnoff developed a new kind of flavoured alcoholic beverage. It started out as beer in the initial manufacturing process, but later in the process Smirnoff drained off the beer base and replaced it with “flavourings” containing distilled spirits. By the end of the manufacturing process, distilled spirits accounted for up to 99 percent of the alcohol in the new drink. Smirnoff called the new drink “Smirnoff Ice” and characterized it as a “flavored malt beverage.”
Because the new drink began as a beer, Smirnoff convinced regulators to let them market it as a beer.
This coveted designation allowed them to advertise the product on TV and sell it in convenience stores, handing Smirnoff far wider access to the youth market.
As Anne Landman of PR Watch described this scenario, Smirnoff began pouring tens of millions of dollars into TV ads. And the American Academy of Pediatrics reported this month that minors see 65% more alcopop magazine ads than do those who are over 21. In 2002, the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth reported that more than 1,500 Smirnoff Ice ads ran on TV programs that had disproportionately youthful audiences, in blatant violation of the alcohol industry’s own voluntary code.
But as the Center for Media and Democracy had previously reported, such voluntary industry codes, particularly in the alcohol industry, have virtually non-existent enforcement mechanisms.
Smirnoff gave its new drink candy-like flavours that appealed to youth, like Wild Grape, Cherry Lime, Raspberry Burst and Watermelon. Public health advocates dubbed the new drink “alcopop” and pointed out that their fruity sweetness makes the drink especially appealing to underage drinkers. According to a study done by Glasgow University, alcopop popularity surges among youth between the ages of 13 and 16. An Alcohol Policies Project study on alcopop determined that teens are twice as likely to have tried alcopop as adults, and three times more likely than adults to be aware of alcopop.
Indeed, young drinkers’ use of Smirnoff Ice grew rapidly after its introduction. Between 2000 and 2002, Smirnoff Ice helped grow its new “alcopop” market from 0.6 percent to 29 percent. By 2009, a study on adolescent drug use showed 64 percent of 8th graders reported regularly using alcopops.
At the same time, Diageo re-engineered the Smirnoff brand to appeal to a younger audience, it also launched a PR and lobbying campaign aimed at convincing policymakers and the public that the company was committed to reducing underage drinking.
According to PR Watch, this “corporate responsibility” strategy mirrors that used by tobacco companies in the 1990s after they came under fire for targeting youth.
Diageo even hired former Philip Morris vice president Guy L. Smith to head its marketing and PR department, to design and implement the new youth drinking prevention campaign.
And just like tobacco companies, Diageo established its own “responsible marketing code”, started broadcasting “responsibility” ads on television aimed at educating viewers on how to prevent underage drinking, and started pouring funding into prevention programs that focused on retail practices and public awareness – topics that take the focus off alcohol industry practices.
Study author James Mosher found that even though the U.S. Surgeon General in 2007 declared underage drinking a “public health crisis”, the practices of the alcohol industry have largely escaped notice and have not been a priority for public health agencies.
Diageo and other brands of alcohol have extended their reach into the youth market by routinely advertising on social network sites, interactive websites, internet games, and by using viral marketing tactics and YouTube videos, all of which are largely unregulated and have a high likelihood of reaching underage audiences.
The reality: data on alcohol brand preferences among youth and the industry’s digital marketing activities are not collected, and public health agencies simply ignore this issue. The question: why is a bottled alcoholic beverage that is quite clearly not beer marketed according to beer’s loosey-goosey regulations – as if it were?
Intriguing aside: Smirnoff’s manufacturer Diageo is also an important member of the controversial corporate bill mill, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), as PR Watch explains:
“In 1999, ALEC formally adopted a position opposing federally-mandated blood alcohol levels for drunk driving.
“In 2003, ALEC produced a ‘model’ bill titled ‘The Drug and Alcohol Defense Act’ that handed a legal advantage to alcohol manufacturers in personal injury lawsuits.
“ALEC’s model bill is written so broadly to apply to all civil suits in which it could potentially be used to help protect the industry from these types of legal suits. ALEC corporations, including pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, also pursue an anti-consumer agenda in many ways as documented extensively by the Center for Media and Democracy.”