“Absolut Magic” proclaims a print ad for a popular vodka. “Paradise found,” headlines another. “Fairy tales can come true” says a third.
All these ads illustrate the major premise of alcohol advertising’s mythology: Alcohol is magic, a magic carpet that can take you away. It can make you successful, sophisticated, sexy. Without it, your life would be dull, mediocre and ordinary.
Everyone wants to believe in happy endings. But as most of us know, the reality of alcohol for many people in our society is more like a horror story than a fairy tale. The liquid in the glass is definitely not a magic potion.
We are surrounded by the message that alcohol is fun, sexy, desirable and harmless. We get this message many times a day. We get it from the ads and, far more insidiously, we get it from the media, which depend upon alcohol advertising for a large share of their profits. Thanks to this connection, alcohol use tends to be glorified throughout the media and alcohol-related problems are routinely dismissed.
Alcohol is related to parties, good times, celebrations and fun, but it is also related to murder, suicide, unemployment and child abuse. These connections are never made in the ads. Of course, one would not expect them to be. The advertisers are selling their product and it is their job to erase any negative aspects as well as to enhance the positive ones. However, when the product is the nation’s number one drug, there are consequences that go far beyond product sales.
Most people know that alcohol can cause problems. But how many realize that 10 percent of all deaths in the United States – including half of all homicides and at least one quarter of all suicides – are related to alcohol? The economic cost to the nation exceeds $100 billion a year. At least 13,000,000 Americans, about one out of 10, are alcoholic – the personal cost to them and their families is incalculable.
The tab for alcohol use doesn’t end there. More than $2 billion a year – a sizable chunk of the over $90 billion the industry takes in annually – goes to prime the advertising and promotion pump and keep drinkers’ money flowing freely. Problem drinkers and young people are the primary targets of these advertisers.
Of course, industry spokespeople disagree with this claim. Over and over again, their public statements assert that they are not trying to create new or heavier drinkers. Instead, they say they only want people who already drink to switch to another brand and to drink it in moderation. However, the most basic analysis of alcohol advertising reveals an emphasis on both recruiting new, young users and pushing heavy consumption of their products.
Indeed, advertising that encouraged only moderate drinking would be an economic failure. This becomes clear when you know that only 10 percent of the drinking-age population consumes over half of all alcoholic beverages sold. According to Robert Hammond, director of the Alcohol Research Information Service, if all 105 million drinkers of legal age consumed the official maximum “moderate” amount of alcohol – .99 ounces per day, the equivalent of about two drinks – the industry would suffer “a whopping 40 percent decrease in the sale of beer, wine and distilled spirits.”