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Do “Drink Responsibly” Ads Encourage Drinking?

Alcohol brands are sorry, not sorry you’re drinking too much.

Do “Drink Responsibly” Ads Encourage Drinking?
[Photo: Elzbieta Sekowska via Shutterstock]

You’ve seen them on TV and on billboards, even if you didn’t pay attention–the “drink responsibly” messages at the bottom of alcohol ads. Most brands now use some variation on “Enjoy in moderation.” But it’s questionable whether anyone is listening and whether the companies involved are really concerned about your booze intake. In fact, these messages could be subtly promoting drinking.

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In a new study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University scanned 1,795 ads appearing in U.S. magazines between 2008 and 2010. Fully 87% included a responsibility message, but not one actually defined what “responsible” meant. In 95% of cases, the message was in smaller font than the main ad, and, in many cases, the warning was contradicted by the wider theme. For example, one Stolichnaya vodka ad implored readers to “Enjoy Stoli responsibly,” but showed a waitress pouring glasses for the whole table. The tagline said: “To tomorrow, Oh, it’s already tomorrow.”


“Although it is difficult to define whether a scene or depiction or tagline is inconsistent with responsible consumption given that there is no established definition of responsible drinking, there were many instances where ad content depicted drinking that is difficult to see as responsible,” says lead author Katherine Clegg Smith, an associate professor in Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Federal law forbids brands from making misleading promotional statements, but says nothing about responsibility messaging. That’s covered by voluntary codes of conduct set out by the Beer Institute or the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, two industry groups. The brands themselves come up with the warnings, and it’s clear they have an interest in keeping the language as unspecific as possible. Unlike pharmaceutical companies that are required by law to discuss the side effects of drugs they advertise, few of the ads analyzed discussed the consequences of irresponsible drinking, such as car accidents or liver problems.


“Rather than providing any impactful cautionary information, the responsibility messages . . . appear to reinforce the notion that decisions to drink responsibly (or not) lie with the consumer rather than those producing and promoting the product,” the paper, which is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, says.

Their point isn’t that drinking is bad, but that, if companies are serious about moderation, they might think of promoting it differently. The paper suggests brands “replace or supplement the unregulated messages” with “externally developed, cognitively tested warning messages prominently placed in the ad that directly address behaviors.” In other words–messages that might work.

“[We can’t] speak to whether these messages promote drinking [but] we outline how the messages routinely promote product branding and reinforce the product promotion in the rest of the ad,” Clegg Smith adds.

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“Any warning message should be highly visible and independently demonstrated to provide the public with clear and useful information that serves to protect health.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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