Drinking & Marketing

Thinking Outside the Box(ed Wine): Why the Stories We Tell About Drinking Matter

August 30, 2018, by Melissa Mowery

On a rare kid-free afternoon, I find myself aimlessly browsing the aisles of Target in the kind of unhurried fashion I seldom enjoy. As I thumb through the racks of graphic tanks and tees, I start to notice a pattern developing: at least half of the shirts on display make mention of alcohol in some way. Rosé All Day. All Is Fine with Pizza and Wine. Save Water, Drink Mojitos. My initial reaction is a hot flare of anger that spreads through my chest like wildfire. Here I am with seven months of sobriety to my name and yet this booze-soaked culture still manages to saturate the world around me, even here in the aisle of a department store where they can’t legally sell alcohol.

But as the indignation dissipates, a new thought surfaces: the old me would’ve loved these shirts.

Truth be told, I used to be exactly the kind of woman who found this alcohol-as-lifeline shtick hilarious and comforting. The shirt that boasts, “This mama runs on coffee, wine, and Amazon Prime.” The wine glass that reads, “Mommy’s in time out.” The bottles of Cab and Pinot cleverly named “Mommy Juice” or “Mad Housewife.” All of them made me feel like part of an exclusive club of women who understood a truth that I wasn’t yet able to articulate: alcohol was our collective reward for being female, the consolation prize for overworked, overtired, and underappreciated women everywhere.

For a long time, I belonged to this target market: women who drink to cope with the pressures and obligations of a life they’re desperately trying to hold together. I drank because I was tired. I drank because raising kids is hard. I drank because numbing the trauma of my past is much easier than tackling those feelings head on. I drank because—as the 7 million Instagram hashtags constantly remind me—self-care is an important part of womanhood and drinking seemed like an easy way to meet that need.

I want to be clear that my problem drinking was not caused by clever marketing; I don’t believe other women’s issues with alcohol are either. What I do believe is this narrative that so savvily equates drinking with surviving womanhood is exacerbating a problem many of us can’t even name. But marketers know that it exists and they’re using it against us. Quite successfully, in fact.

As someone who used to work in the marketing world, I understand the game. In order for a marketing campaign to work, it needs to draw on the emotions of the consumer. It’s not enough for the buyer to like the interior or appreciate the features of a new car; she has to be able to envision it as part of a larger narrative about who she is and how this car will make her feel about herself when she drives it. Frighteningly enough, marketers often understand the emotions that drive our purchasing decisions better than we do. The case of alcohol is no exception.

Though we look back in awe of how gullible and naive women were in the 1940s and 50s when tobacco companies used cigarettes as a symbol of liberation, sophistication, and sex appeal, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re not being targeted in exactly the same way. The only difference is that this time, alcoholic beverage marketers are touting brunch-time mimosas with girlfriends, oversized glasses of Merlot, and fruity date-night cocktails as a backdrop for the kind of indulgent life we deserve as women who are constantly catering to others. They’ve diagnosed the need—a reward for the hard work of womanhood—and have provided the fix: a guilt-free indulgence masquerading as self-care. The argument is only bolstered by the fact that everyone else just happens to be participating in it, too. Strength in numbers.

And those numbers are pretty startling. According to a 2017 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, female alcohol use disorder in the United States increased by 83.7% between 2002 and 2013. Unsurprisingly, depression is also on the rise in the US—it spiked 33% between 2013-2017, according to one study—with women being twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. Additionally, research shows that one out of three women who experience depression will also suffer from some form of substance abuse or dependence. The correlation is pretty clear: women are growing increasingly more depressed and they’re turning to alcohol—a depressant—to cope. And the 223 billion dollar a year alcoholic beverage industry is waiting with open arms.

As sobering as they are, I doubt these numbers really surprise anyone. It’s no secret that in this age of Pinterest-perfect houses and Instagram-worthy selfies, we women are more anxious, stressed, and depressed than we’ve ever been. We know this about ourselves and the alcohol industry does too.  Here’s what they’ve also figured out: we—the women who spend so much of our time serving our spouses, kids, aging parents, coworkers, and communities—often require permission to do things that seem overly indulgent. And where do we get that permission? From the coffee mugs that read, “This Might Be Wine.” From the shirts that suggest chasing espresso with prosecco. From the memes that tell us the most expensive part of motherhood is all the wine we have to drink.

Maybe the saddest part of it all is that every time we wear the shirt or drink from the coffee mug or share the meme, we’re marketing their product for them—to each other. And we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing. Oftentimes we’re simply giving our endorsement, the way women have always done, because we’re wired for community and sharing gives us a common language. But when we endorse alcohol as a way to survive womanhood we’re inadvertently weakening ourselves, telling each other—and everyone else—that being a woman is not survivable without a drink in our hands.

I do not believe this is true. And you shouldn’t either.

The alcoholic beverage industry knows our story. They see our depression, our stress, our anxiety, and they’re presenting us with an easy out. A glass of wine after the kids go to bed to dull the stress of a work fiasco. A splash of Baileys in our morning coffee to cope with a long day at the soccer field. A margarita big enough to swallow up our feelings and ensure we won’t think about them for the next couple hours. But as a woman who used alcohol to take the edge off my life for many years, I can tell you that I never actually needed it to survive. In fact, if sobriety has taught me anything, it’s that life is not something to be merely survived.

My life is difficult and stressful and sometimes feels unmanageable. I still battle depression, fear, loneliness, and anxiety. I cry. I yell. I complain. It would be insincere to pretend all of that followed the alcohol down the drain and that being sober magically erased the hard stuff. It didn’t. What it did do is allow me to clearly see the other part of my life, the part that’s positively overflowing with the kind of incredible beauty that I could not fully appreciate until I stopped numbing the good stuff, too. For a long time, I saw myself so clearly in the pictures marketers painted of life with alcohol as the backdrop—I envisioned myself freer, lighter, happier. The irony is that I wasn’t able to grasp that life with both hands until, at long last, I finally put down my drink.

Written by Melissa Mowery