This story is from an episode of Woman’s Hour from the BBC World Service. It was presented by Jenni Murray, produced by Rabeka Nurmahomed, and edited by Sarah Crawley. Adapted for text by Bryan Lufkin. For more from Woman’s Hour, click here.
Blue means boy, pink means girl. Gendered signals like these begin the second we’re born and continue through the course of our lives. From childhood to adulthood, marketers use gendered stereotypes and tropes to convince us to buy their products – and it does seem to work. A 2018 study conducted in New York City found women are willing to pay up to 13% more for the same goods as men – from personal care products to health products – if they are rebranded to target women specifically.
In recent years, one sector in particular has turned its eyes on female buyers: the alcohol industry. “Chick beer” comes in pink packaging with fewer calories. Pastel cocktails dazzle on Instagram to woo women drinkers. Booze with the name “Mummy’s Time Out” targets mums starved for happy hour. And even clothing stores are cashing in, offering T-shirts with slogans like “wine time” drawn in whimsical calligraphy.
Alcohol abuse prevention organisations, health bodies and news outlets have all have flagged the fact that more women are drinking at unhealthy levels, as well as a rise in female binge drinking and alcohol-related deaths. Yet it’s not clear their message is being heard amid a barrage of female-oriented alcohol advertising.
So how exactly are manufacturers targeting women?
‘You’ve come a long way, baby’
In the case of alcohol, say experts, marketing often links drinking to perceptions of what women are seeking; friendship, relaxation and empowerment. “We see that these companies are using empowerment as a form of market segmentation: if only, you know, women had the right products, the right alcohol drinks, they could achieve anything,” says Anathansia Daskalopoulou, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Liverpool Management School.
As women's socioeconomic status rose in past decades, their drinking habits have too, so companies use images of empowerment and busy professionals to target women (Credit: Alamy)
Research by Carol Emslie, a professor of substance use and misuse at the School of Health and Life Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, shows how alcohol companies harness the fact that women want to retain their identities as they go through various life changes. When Emslie and her colleagues talked to women in their 30s and 40s, they found that many viewed drinking as a way to “show their identity beyond the responsibilities associated with being a woman in midlife”, such as navigating career or childcare pressures. Getting together for a few drinks after work to laugh and relax was especially important for them, she says. “Women also felt that they were transformed back to carefree youth, away from their responsibilities.”
This is really straight out of the tobacco industry playbook – Carol Emslie
It’s these desires that marketers zero in on to get women to buy alcohol. “We’ve seen a move away from sexualising women to sell alcohol to men towards alcohol brands trying to align their products with sophistication, women’s empowerment and with female friendship,” she says. “This is really straight out of the tobacco industry playbook, with slogans such as ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ in the ‘60s.” The famous Virginia Slims cigarette campaign attempted to cash in on the ‘women’s lib’ movement of the time, trying to attract female consumers who identified with the movement.
Anathansia Daskalopoulou says the trend towards female-focused marketing is unsurprising given the rise in women’s socioeconomic power. That’s led, she says, to the emergence of multiple new alcohol products targeting female customers, from fruit-flavoured beers to low-calorie beverages. “We see a focus on slimness, weight, pink packaging, glitter, messages of sisterhood, all-female friendships, motherhood, and also the all-time favourite, sexiness,” she says. “Messages of empowerment have increased, [as well as] of a celebration of women – for example, in association with International Women’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and even Mother’s Day.”
Indeed, last year, International Women’s Day was the excuse for a liquor store in Washington state to sell 1,000 bottles of wine to women for a penny apiece, while liquor brand Bacardi used the global holiday that celebrates gender rights to promote a new reduced-alcohol line of vodka flavoured with peach, lemon or cucumber that was billed as perfect for a “spa day spritz”.
Gendered tropes like the colour pink, in combination with signals of sisterhood and hard-earned fun, are common ways marketers depict women drinking (Credit: Alamy)
There are of course multiple sectors where women have been crying out for more products aimed specifically at them; fitness centres and financial services, to name but a few. But when it comes to alcohol, marketing to particular groups can have worrying consequences.
Kate Baily, a West Sussex-based podcast host and the co-author of the book Love Yourself Sober: A Self-Care Guide to Alcohol-Free Living for Busy Mothers, says the impact of alcohol marketing on mothers is an area of concern. Feminised marketing popularised concepts like ‘mummy juice’ and ‘wine o’clock’, linking them to how busy women navigated anxiety. That meant, says Baily, that “women were using alcohol [as] an acceptable face of self-medication and stress release. We were sold it as this kind of reward at the end of the day.”
Baily, who also points to social media as a big driver of ‘feminised’ drinking, believes ‘mummy wine time’ started from a good place. Women were seeing mummy influencers making “cupcakes and looking like a supermodel”, and in response came photos of “real” mums, breast-feeding in public inside restrooms at laundromats. But she believes that “real” image of motherhood then “got coupled with drinking”. “You’d have [images] of bottles of wines in prams,” she says, with messages like “calm on the outside, prosecco on the inside”, a sentiment that marketeers then worked to cash in on.
Feminised marketing popularised concepts like ‘mummy juice’ and ‘wine o’clock’, linking them to how busy women navigated anxiety
This, she says, can create unhealthy habits. “We feel that mums are a very vulnerable group in terms of their mental health. One in three experience mental health issues in early motherhood,” she says. That means some are at risk of sliding down the scale of alcohol use disorder, particularly if they are drinking in the way that’s encouraged with ‘Mummy needs wine’ T-shirts or similar products.
Don’t ‘pink’ my drink
Efforts to expand the female market for alcohol have certainly worked. A 2016 study published in the BMJ medical journal found that women are now drinking at nearly the same rates as their male counterparts. But statistics also back up the idea that alcohol abuse among women is on the rise. A 2017 US study found that alcohol use disorder among females skyrocketed 83% between 2002 and 2013, and a UK study from the same year found that alcohol-related deaths among British women reached the highest numbers since 2008. Experts also worry that children are absorbing messages aimed at adults, with potential consequences for later life.
“What we need to remember is that alcohol advertising normalises drinking,” Emslie says. “Young people – our daughters – are consuming the same media and taking in the same alcohol messages as adults.” She points to policy changes the government can take to restrict alcohol advertising, saying it can better regulate the types of messages that can reach young girls in particular. This can curb some of the damage that ‘feminised’ marketing can do both online and in broadcast media, as well as bolstering organisations that promote alcohol-free lifestyles.
Emslie also points to a social media initiative that took off last year called #DontPinkMyDrink, in which she and her colleagues have asked women to tweet examples of products that “are equating women’s drinking with pink, with fun, with friendship, with empowerment”. The aim is to call out the ways companies use patronising tropes to target women: cotton candy-coloured labels, sweet flavours, or Johnnie Walker turning its mascot into a female version, Jane.
One thing is clear: gendered marketing remains a reality across all aspects of daily life. But the experts say that unlocking many of the values that these alcohol adverts and products tap into – happiness, independence, empowerment – requires real change. Not a bottle of overpriced rosé.
“These types of advertisements,” Daskalopoulou says, don’t “actually challenge deep structural inequalities. We have to acknowledge that feeling empowered is not the same thing as actually being empowered.”