Beverages, Alcoholic

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When the 21st Amendment ended 13 years of Prohibition in the U.S. in 1933, marketers of alcoholic beverages set out to regain lost markets. Distilled liquor marketers agreed to refrain from advertising on radio—a policy later extended to TV—and instead used mostly print media, with ads that appealed primarily to professionals and the upper class. Wine marketers cast their product as the drink of moderation, to be consumed at mealtimes, and beer marketers took yet another road.


In the mid-1930s, U.S. brewers began to package beer in cans and changed their advertising to encourage consumers to drink at home rather than in taverns. Positioned as a nourishing, healthy drink, beer was associated with physical activities and sports. During the 1940s, brewers began to sponsor sporting events. Anheuser-Busch purchased the St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball team and, in the mid-1950s, began to advertise on radio broadcasts of its team's games.

During the Cold War years, beer ads emphasized patriotism and freedom, depicting beer drinkers as independent, loyal and dedicated individuals. By the late 1970s, beer advertising emphasized brand characteristics (e.g., dry beer, ice beer, light beer) and, in response to growing public concerns about drunk driving, began to remind consumers to drink responsibly.

Through the 1980s, beer advertisers used wide-circulation newspapers, billboards and network TV to target mass audiences. In the 1990s, however, the growth of specialized media outlets (e.g., cable TV, satellite broadcasting, narrowly targeted magazines and the Internet) fostered a shift toward niche marketing.

Marketers of premium and imported beers became prominent advertisers, promoting their products with themes of independence and individuality (e.g., Molson's slogan: "We think it is a good beer, but you try it and decide for yourself"). Meanwhile, the major brewers sought new advertising angles, as Anheuser-Busch did with its "Born On ..." campaign, which stressed product freshness.

In the last decades of the 20th century, beer became the most popular alcoholic beverage in the U.S. and Canada, especially among young adult men, who consumed more beer than any other segment of the population. Beer advertising targeted men between the ages of 19 and 35, associating beer with adventure, fun, excitement, escape, the good life, outdoor sports and relaxation to convince young people that drinking beer would make them more successful, popular and sexually appealing. Consequently, beer ads depicted locations associated with good times—bars, beaches and sporting events—and often featured activities in and around the water or used images of motor vehicles to evoke feelings of pleasure, power and excitement.

For two decades beginning in the early 1970s, Anheuser-Busch advertising for Budweiser featured the average working man. Ads for Busch beer, which once used cowboys, began to carry the slogan "Head for the mountains" by the 1990s. The brewer's chief agency during those decades was D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.

Beer advertisers frequently used humor in their ad campaigns. A popular 1997 campaign developed by Young & Rubicam, New York, for Molson Golden used Bob and Doug McKenzie, well-known fictional characters from the SCTV TV series, to promote its product and to poke fun in a good-humored way at Canadians.

Other strategies have included the use of animals and animated characters. Budweiser campaigns developed by D'Arcy and DDB Needham Worldwide in the early 1990s featured frogs, dogs and lizards and were noted for their creativity and humor. In the later years of the decade, digital animation ushered in a new trend in advertising, showing quasi-human characters in bizarre settings. (Some critics argued that such advertising appealed inappropriately to children and should be taken off the air.)

Ethnic minority groups became an increasingly important target in the 1990s. In 1998, Corona Extra, a Mexican beer, overtook Heineken to become the top-selling imported beer in the U.S., in part by positioning itself in opposition to the prevailing macho images. Corona ads via the Richards Group and Cramer-Krasselt featured Corona in Mexican landscapes and introduced the idea of the beer as a vacation in a bottle.

Also in 1998, Labatt USA aired radio spots for Tecate via Ammirati Puris Lintas that featured an elderly woman pleading with her sons not to forget their Mexican heritage.

Even established European brands advertised in U.S. markets via campaigns that made reference to ethnic authenticity. Seagram promoted its Grolsch brand by highlighting its Dutch heritage in a $4 million print campaign created by Gearon Hoffman. One 1997 ad for Grolsch showed a self-portrait of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh with the line, "The same bold taste since the days when body piercing meant cutting off an ear." This campaign ran in national magazines such as Spin and Rolling Stone and on local radio and in newspapers in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

A new front opened in the beer wars in 2002 when Anheuser-Busch rolled out Michelob Ultra, a beer that was low in carbohydrates and aimed at dieters. It was an immediate hit, and the next year Miller positioned Lite as a low-carb product—a move that spurred sales. Coors subsequently announced it was introducing its own low-carb brand, Aspen Edge.


Although wine was produced commercially in the U.S. as early as 1783, it only gained real popularity at the end of the 20th century. By the 1990s, 90% of American wine was produced in California, and the U.S. was No. 5 worldwide in terms of wine production. (Canadian wines also gained in popularity, but production in Canada was far outstripped by wine imports.)

Wine marketers target a broader demographic than beer marketers, appealing both to men and women, and focusing on consumers in their 30s and older. Marketers generally see wine drinkers, who have above-average incomes, as more sophisticated than their beer-drinking counterparts.

Wine advertising typically appeals to women as well as men, seeking to expand consumers' perceptions of appropriate occasions for consuming wine beyond the usual special occasions or at mealtimes. Love and romance, sex, camaraderie, tradition and heritage, humor and physical activity are all common themes in wine advertising.

In the early 1980s, wine marketers introduced wine coolers, which blended wine with fruit juices, in an attempt to reach 21-to-35-year-old female consumers. Wine coolers quickly became the fastest-growing segment of the alcoholic beverage category.

Brown-Forman's California Cooler was the early leader in the new niche, with a 60% share of the category in 1984. Other alcoholic beverage marketers such as Heublein and Seagram also introduced wine coolers and, by the late 1980s, more than 150 brands were on the market. E&J Gallo Winery's 1985 campaign for its Bartles & Jaymes brand, tagged "Thank you for your support," became perhaps the most recognized wine cooler advertising. Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, handled the effort.

But wine cooler consumption decreased significantly during the 1990s. The products, which in 1986 comprised 21.3% of the alcoholic beverages market, dropped to 2.6% in 1997.

Distilled liquor

The rapid decline of wine coolers may be due in part to the introduction in the 1990s of the liquor cooler, which blended juices with distilled liquor rather than wine. Early popular brands included Brown-Forman's line of Jack Daniel's Country Cocktails, Heublein's Jose Cuervo's margaritas and Coors Brewing Company's Zima. Ads for these drinks followed the same format as those for the wine coolers, targeting young females.

Liquor ads typically show consumers in hip settings, often at upscale parties or celebrations, and portray them as trendsetters who enjoy their status. While ads for distilled spirits also appeal to the young, they target an elite consumer. The heaviest consumers of distilled spirits are well-educated men and women, 25 to 35 years old, with incomes of more than $60,000 a year. Marketers target this group with ads that portray lifestyles characterized by wealth, success, class, intelligence and prestige.

For example, a 1999 print campaign from Hamon & Stern for Alizé liqueur, a blend of cognac and passion fruit juice, targeted young, dynamic women with the message, "Why bother with life's foibles when you can be having an Alize drink instead?" The ads presented professional women trying to escape life's mundane preoccupations.

One Remy Martin cognac ad showed the bottle beside two filled glasses resting on a pedestal in the clouds. The tagline read, "Want to come up for a drink sometime?" One long-running campaign for Dewar's scotch presented profiles of successful people who drank the whisky. A 1999 ad told the story of former software developers who quit to develop a successful board game. "They're Dewars," the ad claimed, a play on "doers," that is, intelligent and successful people.

One time-honored advertising theme for distilled spirits is sexual desire. Often the product is shown as the catalyst of hedonistic pleasures to come. Typical of the genre was a 1999 TBWA/Chiat/Day print ad for Seagram's Lime Twisted Gin, which depicted the product's bumpy bottle in vibrant colors with a lime peel coming out of the top. The tagline read, "Your night is about to take an unexpected twist."

Some liquor ads focus on product virtues such as purity and quality; occasionally, liquor ads discuss alternative uses for the product, such as in recipes. One French-Canadian advertisement for Bellini, an Italian liqueur made of peach nectar and sparkling wine, offered recipes for preparing different types of margaritas. Promotional offers for items such as cookbooks, T-shirts and shot glasses are also common.

Some ads have come under attack for promoting heavy alcohol consumption. An ad for Remy Martin showed a man pouring himself four times as much cognac as he poured for his guest, with the tagline, "Looking after No. 1." Yet studies have found that most ads for alcohol neither encourage nor discourage heavy consumption. Nonetheless, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller Brewing Co. and Seagram have released campaigns encouraging moderate drinking (e.g., Anheuser-Busch's "Know when to say when" and Miller's "Think when you drink" campaigns). Critics argue, however, that these campaigns are insufficient, as they fail to mention times when people should not drink even the smallest amount of alcohol.

Law and policy: International overview

Regulations governing the advertising of alcohol products vary substantially from country to country, and these restrictions—as well as cultural mores and attitudes toward alcohol—affect the content of ads produced internationally. In India, advertising of alcohol is forbidden altogether (although only one state strictly enforces the prohibition on drinking it). Saudi Arabia censors foreign media, removing advertising for alcoholic beverages. And while ads for alcohol are widespread in print and broadcast media in China, the government places limits on their content, prohibiting the association of drinking with personal, financial or sexual success, among other strictures.

Regulation of alcohol advertising is also relatively strict in many European countries. A 1991 law banned all alcohol advertising in France, which resulted in the cancellation of foreign sports matches broadcast on French TV. The government also discouraged marketers of alcoholic beverages from buying in-stadium ads in countries where they did have a marketing presence and asked the French networks to avoid showing stadium signage during broadcasts of sports events.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority in the U.K. adopted a complex advertising code for alcohol in 1981 that lists 13 distinct limitations. Before approving any spot for broadcast in the U.K., the Independent TV Companies' Association reviews it to ensure compliance. Similar regulations apply to cable, with the added stipulation that no spot may associate drinking with aggressive and antisocial behavior. Spots for alcohol cannot be aired during children's or religious programming, or from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Britain.

In Canada provincial liquor boards control print advertising for alcoholic beverages, and a national commission has promulgated a code governing broadcast advertising.

Compared with the laws in other industrialized countries, regulation of the content of alcohol advertising in the U.S. is minimal. Although early legislation denied First Amendment protection to commercial speech, a 1976 Supreme Court decision and subsequent court decisions accorded liquor ads the same protection as other legal commercial products.

In the late 1990s, politicians and lobby groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving unsuccessfully sought to establish curbs on the advertising of alcoholic beverages. Beer, wine and spirits producers continued to maintain that self-regulation was more practical than legislation as a means to protect the public from harmful advertising.

As a result, some U.S. beverage producers adopted codes governing ads for alcoholic beverages. The Beer Institute, for example, published the "Advertising & Marketing Guide," which clearly outlined unacceptable content in advertising.

That code urged that ads portray drinkers as responsible and avoid depictions of drinking and driving, excessive drinking, intoxication, sales of liquor to minors or to drunk people. The Beer Institute code also admonished marketers to exclude content that might appeal to children (e.g., depictions of Santa Claus, cartoon characters or toys) and to avoid airing spots during children's programming.

The Beer Institute makes its code available to all brewery employees, distributors and agencies that advertise beer, and it investigates complaints when they arise. Similar codes exist for wine and distilled liquor advertisers.

Such self-regulatory codes are entirely voluntary, but community groups can use boycotts to exert significant pressure on companies that go too far. Heileman Brewing Co., for example, was forced to pull its 1991 ads for Colt 45 Powermaster malt liquor following numerous protests that the ads, which targeted African-Americans, emphasized the product's high alcohol content and alluded to the role of alcohol in sexual promiscuity.

In 1996 Seagram broke the 60-year voluntary ban on hard liquor ads on radio and TV in the U.S., airing spots (after 9 p.m.) for Crown Royal Canadian whiskey and Absolut vodka on 21 stations operating in large markets across the country. Seagram reasoned that ads for distilled spirits were not any more harmful than ads for other types of alcohol because a standard serving of liquor contains the same amount of alcohol as a standard serving of beer or wine. The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. supported Seagram. But despite the fact that other brands such as Bacardi, Jim Beam and Chivas Regal followed suit, TV spots for distilled liquor remain rare, with print media the primary venues for this product category.

In December 2001, NBC announced it would accept ads for liquor, a move that worried magazine publishers already hard hit by recession and slowed ad spending. The network planned to air liquor ads from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. (ET) and on late-night shows with at least 85% of their audience age 21 or older. Diageo's Guinness-UDV North America unit was the first liquor marketer to sign with NBC for broadcast of a spot for its Smirnoff vodka that urged drinkers to name a designated driver. But in 2002 the network changed its mind and scuttled those plans.

The role of new media

Another medium used by alcoholic beverage marketers is the Internet. Web sites from these companies allow consumers who are at least 18 years old to enter contests, buy products, discuss brands with other enthusiasts, play games and download screen savers, animated e-cards and icons related to the products.

Heineken's Web site, for example, provided information on sports events and corporate history, allows browsers to "hang out" in virtual bars and provides entertainment and merchandise. Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates' Web site listed events sponsored by the marketer, allowed users to shop for wine and provided education about the winery's products. Bailey's Irish Cream sponsored areas such as "PleasureDome" and the "Vault," which allowed browsers to meet others, play games, discuss recipes and buy collectibles.

These sites permit viewers to be actively involved with the marketer's products. They allow advertisers to provide in-depth messages that would be impractical or discouraged in print ads or 30-second TV spots.

Many countries, however, are concerned about their lack of control over content presented on the Web. Even though advertising of alcoholic beverages is prohibited in France and India, for example, residents can access ads for alcoholic beverages via Web sites in the U.S.

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