Alcohol Meets Media and Marketing: A Call to Tell Better STORIES
There came a point when I realized the alcohol-as-lifestyle messaging in media and marketing had taken on epic proportions. How can we be more human in the stories we tell around alcohol?
Back when I was an editor at a women’s lifestyle magazine, I didn’t think twice about posting a photo of a cocktail on social media or of me holding up an entire bottle of wine. Margaritas on the beach during research (I was a travel editor), champagne toasts at Christmas around the perfect family table — alcohol seemed like a normal part of life to me, and my social media feed reflected that. Although I kept it mostly in my personal feed and writing, my beliefs certainly influenced the way I told stories professionally, too.
“Everyone drinks, except alcoholics,” was a thought deeply ingrained in my psyche, adding a cheeky line to a story or a photo caption about “deserving wine.” I never thought twice about the message I might be sending, including the message I was sending to myself.
Then I became addicted, and everything changed.
As a woman who has worked in and around media and marketing for 20 years — and a woman who got sober while working in that high-pressure, high-stakes culture where clicks are king — my passion now has changed. Today, I guide conversations around how we talk about alcohol in women’s lifestyle media and marketing. How, I ask, can we be more human in the stories that we tell around alcohol? Smarter, more sensitive, more empathetic?
To be clear: I’m not a prohibitionist — everyone has a choice to drink or not drink. But there came a point when I realized the alcohol-as-lifestyle messaging in media and marketing had taken on epic proportions.
And who better to address it than someone who had lived on both sides of the story?
THE ILLUSION AND THE REALITY
It doesn’t take much work to find them: images that normalize, glorify and celebrate alcohol use. Scroll through your social media feed. Flip through a women’s magazine. Even at the gym, we see the images that tell us: “Go ahead, you deserve a drink!” “Rosé all day!” “Mommy needs her wine!” From T-shirts to greeting cards, alcohol messaging is everywhere.
At the same time, our country struggles with an addiction epidemic, with drinking an often overlooked but significant component. Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. Although opioid addiction has gotten much media attention, and rightfully so, much less attention has been given to an alarming increase in alcohol-related issues, particularly among women. Occasionally in the wake of a celebrity death, media briefly turns attention to mental health and addiction issues, saying “Ask for help.” But still, there seems to be a disconnect between how we talk about alcohol and use alcohol messaging in media and marketing.
The alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative isn’t just about addiction, either. One doesn’t have to be dependent on alcohol to suffer negative consequences — just ask anyone who has experienced a hangover. Yet we continue to depict alcohol like it’s an accessory.
However, a growing number of people are questioning the depiction of alcohol in marketing and media, asking “Can we do better?” and “Can we talk about the reality of alcohol?”
I am one of those people. In January 2018, after reading a story that glorified hangovers among women executives, I created the Tell Better Stories movement to encourage critical discussion around what I call the “alcohol-as-lifestyle” narrative. To be clear: I don’t think a meme or T-shirt caused my addiction. We’re complicated creatures, each with our own histories, environments, genetic predisposition, traumas and behaviors. However, when I was drinking, I did look to these messages and cultural narratives to reinforce my behavior.
A study published in 2017 by JAMA Psychiatry shows that problem drinking increased by nearly 50 percent in the U.S. between 2002 and 2013. Among women, alcohol abuse and dependence increased by 83.7 percent.
How could I have a “problem” if I looked like all the other women who were functioning and functioning well? I was a suburban mom and a professional at the top of my game. In the echo chamber of social media, I saw myself looking like every other woman posting photos of children and glasses of rosé, complete with a hashtag. It’s tough to say how much the culture of “Mommy needs wine” influenced me, but I do know that the years in which my drinking picked up, so did the images just about everywhere. And deep inside me, I witnessed a disconnect: the reality of what alcohol can do when consumed over time.
A year and a half after getting sober and working a recovery program, I began to assemble a collection of images and stories in one place with Tell Better Stories. The Instagram account (@tellbetterstories2018) is the main platform where I share images and encourage discussion. Instead of just saying “These are bad,” I provide context for discussion; language for readers to examine issues around alcohol, media and marketing; and hope for people who may want to change their relationship with alcohol.
By isolating these stories and images and showcasing them together in one collection on Instagram, I set out to show their prevalence and start a discussion about their impact. Specifically, my challenge: How can content creators tell smarter, more thoughtful stories, particularly in the context of what we know about the harmful effects of alcohol, including dependence and addiction? How can we be more thoughtful, sensitive and intentional? One step further, how can we create spaces that are inclusive of all people, including everyone in sobriety and recovery?
It’s a tall order, I know, especially in a media environment where clicks are king, and photos of well-styled cocktails get instant likes. But I believe that it can be done, starting with grassroots work to create conversations and offer solutions.
WE DON’T EXIST IN A VACUUM
One of my messages is that we don’t create in a vacuum. This goes for writers, editors, photographers, social media creators, bloggers, brand managers — even individuals. This takes critical thinking skills, looking at the issues from all sides. To begin with, when we examine stories shared about alcohol, we must first look at the facts.
The alcohol industry has long supported the notion that alcohol can be good for you, and the story around alcohol remains this: Drinking equals freedom, celebration, beauty and success. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 70 percent of Americans reported drinking in the past year. Social drinking is regarded as the norm, and many people enjoy a beer or glass of wine at dinner without it becoming an issue for them.
However, problem drinking is on the rise at a dangerous rate. A study published in 2017 by JAMA Psychiatry shows that problem drinking increased by nearly 50 percent in the U.S. between 2002 and 2013. Among women, alcohol abuse and dependence increased by 83.7 percent; among African-Americans, 92.8 percent; and among the poor, it rose by 65.9 percent.
One in every 12 adults suffers from alcohol abuse or dependence, along with countless more people who engage in risky binge-drinking patterns that could lead to injury, sickness and dependence. More than 66 million Americans report that they binge-drink on the regular, and the impact of alcohol misuse is $249 billion each year.
What about those who drink socially without dependence or addiction? Alcohol is still not a black or white issue.
Federal guidelines say drinking can be done in moderation — no more than two drinks a day for a man or one for a woman. However, guidelines also say if you don’t drink, you shouldn’t start.
Furthermore, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of drinkers exceed these limits.
There’s also a renewed discussion around how much alcohol can be consumed in moderation and what constitutes “safe” moderation. The numerous health benefits that are often touted in headlines are often over-exaggerated. Recently, a $100 million federal study designed to better examine the effects of alcohol on the heart was called off because it was deemed unreliable because the funding was coming from the alcohol industry. (The alcohol industry has long touted the benefits of drinking, often citing studies on heart health benefits that were fundamentally flawed. The study recently canceled was designed to yield better data.)
Then there’s the issue of anxiety, depression and mental health. In the sea of stories touting the benefits of alcohol, be it purported health benefits of advertising wine-o-clock, is the reality that women drink in response to negative emotions more than men do.
Perhaps most troubling is the content that encourages women to drink to “cope” with life’s challenges and that by doing so we are on equal footing to men. From a 2017 Washington Post story by Kimberly Kindy:
“The ads started popping up about a decade ago on social media. Instead of selling alcohol with sex and romance, these ads had an edgier theme: Harried mothers chugging wine to cope with everyday stress. Women embracing quart-sized bottles of whiskey and bellying up to bars to knock back vodka shots with men.
“In this new strain of advertising, women’s liberation equaled heavy drinking, and alcohol researchers say it both heralded and promoted a profound cultural shift: Women in America are drinking far more, and far more frequently, than their mothers or grandmothers did, and alcohol consumption is killing them in record numbers.”
Women’s bodies don’t process alcohol like men, and even in small amounts, it affects us differently. Drinking over the long term is more likely to damage a woman’s health than a man’s, even if the woman has been drinking less alcohol or for a shorter length of time than the man. Drinking even one glass a day raises risk for breast cancer, and women are more likely than men to experience negative health effects, including liver inflammation and neurotoxicity.
But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the culture of alcohol, where even hangovers are celebrated. From women’s magazines that celebrate day drinking to social media influencers singing the praises of rosé to workout classes offering beer and wine pairings, alcohol and alcohol messaging seems to be everywhere. Can we make a difference? I say yes.
AN OLD STORY WITH NEW MOMENTUM
I encourage everyone, regardless of their relationship with alcohol to ask: What is the effect of these messages? What do they mean for those who have chosen to live alcohol-free and/or in recovery? How can content creators examine the messages they send around alcohol?
It’s important to note that this is not a new story. Alcohol advertising has long equated alcohol consumption with “the good life,” portraying drinking as a way to unlock freedom, adventure, connection and power. None of this is surprising — they are selling a product, after all. And headlines that sing the praises of drinking get clicks.
What’s more interesting is the way that our culture has adopted and internalized this message, becoming inadvertent spokespeople for alcohol. With the democratization of media (which can be a great thing), everyone is a creator. But do they know the facts about alcohol? Do they care?
In her 2013 book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Canadian journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston explored the rise of ads that promote alcohol and the alcohol lifestyle to women. In a 2018 interview for Tell Better Stories, she shared that the trends she identified five years ago regarding the marketing of alcohol to women have only continued: “The message is profound and 24-7: ‘I drink, and I’m happy.’ We used to turn to corporations and advertisers to sell this message, but not anymore. Instead, we have constant self-promotion that says, ‘I’m having a good time!’ Companies don’t even need to make ads to sell alcohol.”
This work was not designed to shame. Instead, it’s to bring vital topics to light, provide language and context, and respectfully call for more intentional content creation.
Dowsett Johnston says that the normalization of binge-drinking has also been amplified throughout pop culture with movies like Bridesmaids and Trainwreck and with shows like Scandal, which depict women drinking to excess as normal. “The message is that if you aren’t drinking, you aren’t having fun,” she says.
I didn’t understand context until I learned about addiction and recovery up close. For many years, I was a magazine editor who bought into the narrative that alcohol was a normal part of life, something that busy, successful women did to help them deal with life’s challenges and joys.
I, too, inadvertently fed into the alcohol-lifestyle narrative, posting “glamorous” photos of my artisanal cocktails on Instagram. It made me feel better about myself and ultimately helped me hide the steady decline that comes with increased substance use. I did those things without understanding the context of alcohol as a health issue and how it is being marketed toward women.
HOW TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The late Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I believe this applies to engaging with content that glorifies alcohol. First, with Tell Better Stories, I focus on content aimed at women, particularly in lifestyle media and marketing. I don’t have a problem with a lifestyle publication featuring a photo of a glass of wine as part of a photo of a meal or an occasional recipe. People do drink.
What is problematic are when a publication, brand or influencer features frequent images of alcohol; uses alcohol to promote health and wellness; makes jokes about binge-drinking, alcoholism or addiction; or features content that associates drinking with beauty, freedom, empowerment and success.
In my work on Instagram and on my website (tellbetterstoriesmedia.com), I call-in (not call-out) major brands and businesses, not mom-and-pop operations or individuals. The reasoning: Large businesses, be it a magazine or athletic wear company, (should) have teams of people who vet content.
In calling-in, I try to present facts and be constructively critical and kind but unwavering in my call for a review of content. I encourage people to send me images, tagging @TellBetterStories2018 and #tellbetterstories, which I then repurpose and share.
The language I use on the account is language that I encourage others to use and duplicate, to make their own when they are having a conversation with a publication, brand or business owner. I frequently make the caveat that this work was not designed to shame. Instead, it’s to bring vital topics to light, provide language and context, and respectfully call for more intentional content creation.
But discussions on social media aren’t enough. I believe the bigger work happens when we have conversations one-on-one about why as a culture we’re resorting to content that glorifies a drug. What is it about us that drinking itself has seemingly become a national pastime? Is there something about ourselves we are running from? Or many things? And what happens when we want to find another way to live?
That’s the side benefit from doing this work. Every day I hear from women who say, “I don’t like the story I am being sold about alcohol.” Some want to stop drinking because they don’t like the way it makes them feel or it gets in the way of the life they dream of living. Some, like me, have progressed into dependence or addiction and want to find a way out. They want to hear that they aren’t crazy, that in this world that tells us to drink there are many people who don’t and still have wonderful lives. Others are social drinkers who don’t need to, nor want to, stop drinking but have become cognizant of the alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative and want to do their part to say it’s not OK.
To them I say: Be thoughtful and smart when creating content. Know that not everyone drinks and that, for some of us, addiction is a life-or-death issue. Think before you post that image, before you share that meme, before you click on that story that glorifies alcohol. You have a chance to tell a better story. We all do.
Erin Street Shaw is a writer, editor and content strategist. A Florida native, accidental Southerner, mom, feminist, and collector of vintage clothing and gold shoes, she is also an advocate for women and recovery. As the founder of the Tell Better Stories project, she writes, speaks and teaches about issues surrounding women and alcohol, particularly lifestyle media, social media and marketing.