Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
As we lurch toward the end of January, many of us who made New Year’s resolutions are checking our progress: Did we lose weight? Did we stop smoking? Are we nicer people than we were a month ago? And, for a growing number of adults, did Dry January work?
The answer to the latter question is a critical barometer for the beer, wine and spirits industry, which is closely watching the blossoming of modern temperance movements such as Dry January, when people give up drinking alcohol to atone for overindulging over the holidays.
About 35 per cent of the U.S. drinking-age population – more than 60 million people – were expected to take part in the abstinence ritual this year, up from 20 per cent a year ago.
In Canada, new government guidelines suggesting no more than two alcoholic beverages a week for adults threaten to further dilute the enthusiasm for a noggin now and then.
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Put aside how you feel about Health Canada’s sanctimony. What’s remarkable here is that, rather than bellying up to the bar to defend a sector that generates US$88-billion a year in revenues in the U.S., the alcohol industry is engaging in a sort of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” self-flagellation.
In a marketing twist, spirits makers are apologizing for, making fun of and otherwise undermining the appeal of their own core products to keep up with changing consumer tastes. They’re also pushing non-alcoholic alternatives, a small but growing segment of the market. It is a matter of survival.
Tito’s, the Texas-based vodka maker, is among the prominent brands to lean into Dry January. It teamed with homemaking maven Martha Stewart for a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign recommending ways to use vodka when you aren’t supposed to be drinking it. The ads offer tips such as adding vodka to pasta sauce, spraying it on windows or plants or applying it to stinky sneakers to remove odour.
Other companies, notably the makers of Budweiser and Heineken, have used Dry January to promote their non-alcoholic beverages. While products such as near beer and even near wine are still a small fraction of the market, if cultural preferences continue to move away from the real stuff, they may gain ground.
If you think you have seen this sort of jocular approach before, you’re right.
After decades of trying to convince consumers that smoking wasn’t dangerous, the tobacco industry shifted from marketing campaigns of aggressive denial to a lighter, more humorous approach.
Gone were testimonials from doctors pooh-poohing medical claims that smoking caused cancer. Gone were ads with suave gents and sleek ladies promoting a glamorous lifestyle in which cigarettes always figured prominently. In their place came images and slogans that now seem ridiculous and naive.
If you are old enough, you may remember the woman with the black eye in the Tareyton ads, telling consumers she loves her cigarettes so much, “I would rather fight than switch.” Or the spokesmodel targeting women smokers, sneering, “121 brands of fat cigarettes fit men. Virginia Slims are made slimmer to fit you.” And there was the creepy dancing pack of Old Gold cigarettes, with long bare legs in go-go boots.
Alcohol is, of course, not tobacco. Experts are split on the value of both Dry January and Health Canada’s new ultra-moderate guidelines.
Yet as alcohol consumption continues to feel pressure from changing consumer tastes, expect to see a further evolution of marketing toward a more self-deprecating, apologetic and conciliatory posture.
Whether it will reach the absurdity of tobacco marketing remains to be seen. But the current shift clearly raises this question: Is all this a harbinger of a new Prohibition mindset that will eventually see alcohol follow tobacco as a widely marginalized vice?
In the old days, you may have walked a mile for a Camel. If the anti-drinking trend continues unopposed, some day you may need to do the same for a cocktail. Alcohol companies better take heed.