independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Women are targeted by the alcohol industry’s insidious marketing tactics with scant regard for the consequences

Alcohol use has historically been more prevalent among men, but today as the gender gap narrows, women are drinking more than previous generations. 

Alcohol is a leading global factor for early death for young women. According to data published in a global study, Irish women are near the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking, ranking seventh while adolescent girls in Ireland are among the highest binge drinkers in the world, ranking third. Saddest of all, in Ireland in 2019, 439 women died from alcohol-related illness and incident – avoidable deaths. 

Gender equality and women’s increased social and economic independence are of course to be celebrated, but when it comes to alcohol and gender, equal levels of consumption is a false equality. That’s because if a woman drinks the same amount as a man, the alcohol in her blood will be more concentrated because she has less body water to dilute the alcohol than a man does. Women also have a higher proportion of body fat, which does not absorb alcohol as well as muscle and have fewer of the enzymes that break down alcohol. 

Particular to women is the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol is responsible for 1 in 8 breast cancer cases in Ireland.  One in five alcohol-related cancer deaths in the EU is of a woman who has died from an alcohol-attributable breast cancer.  

These are concerning trends and begs the question – what other factors are at play here? 

Research has shown that since the 1990s there has been a clear feminisation of alcohol products, drinking spaces and drinking culture, and increased targeting of women through a number of strategies. 

Once alcohol companies realised it was no longer acceptable to sexualise women in their ads, instead, and in order to capture the growing female market, they turned to a new brand positioning, aligning their products to the idea of empowering women.  

Now that women are a viable upwardly mobile market, the story being sold is that drinking is a sign of a strong modern woman. New products that are fruity, pink, low calorie have been developed in order to cater to women’s tastes and slogans such as wine o’clock and mummy juice are commonplace.  

While it might seem somewhat of an overreaction to suggest that slogans are causing women to drink more, they do create a fabricated culture whereby drinking is encouraged as a coping mechanism for women trying to balance work and home life. Alcohol companies have also managed to capture every occasion – from Mother’s Day to Valentine’s, as an opportunity to align with feel-good female events. 

It is all of these things together – targeted marketing, ‘fun’ campaigns and slogans – the sense that women are being empowered, that create a heady mix of what is referred to as a form of ‘commodity’ feminism, or ‘femvertising’. 

Take for example the linking of alcohol to International Women’s Day. 

In recent years, global multinational Diageo has been a highly visible supporter of International Women’s Day with multiple projects linked to women in the arts, in work and in returning to work.  In 2019 in Ireland on International Women’s Day, Guinness offered 10,000 free pints to ‘celebrate’ women’s rugby – aligning itself with sport and success. 

Last week, a Lancet article exposed the insidious corporate capture of International Women’s Day, with the alcohol industry and arms manufacturers backing a popular website. 

Health advocates discovered that a website, internationalwomensday.com, promoting the hashtag #BreakTheBias does not appear to be linked to the UN, and lists several corporate partners including Diageo, one of the world’s largest producers of alcohol, and Beam Suntory, another major alcohol producer and also Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and military technology providers. 

A recently published paper, Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Girl Power’: An analysis of the targeting and representation of women in alcohol brand marketing on Facebook and Instagram, was the first study to explore the extent and nature of gendered alcohol marketing on Facebook and Instagram. It considered how brands target, represent and engage women in the context of contemporary feminism.   

It found that brands reflect and reproduce important aspects of feminine identities and women’s day to day lives, to promote alcohol use and encourage consumers to interact and co-create content. The study concludes that alcohol brands  commitment to equality are at odds with the known harms related to alcohol consumption that contribute to the widening of health and social inequalities.  This makes the implementation of legislation around labelling of alcohol products even more important. Under the Public Health Alcohol Act, labels on alcohol products must include information on alcohol content, calorific content and health warnings including risks of drinking in pregnancy and cancer. 

We urgently need a timeline from the government as to when this measure will be enacted.  

But it is only part of what needs to be done. Real empowerment is opening women’s eyes to the tactics of the alcohol industry, which uses marketing strategies that actually subvert feminism and manipulate women into consuming a harmful product.  

This International Women’s Day, we are calling out these marketing tactics using with the hashtag #dontpinkmydrink, a campaign developed by UK campaigners in recent years.  

Only when women make informed choices, with the truth about alcohol and its risks at their disposal, can we say the playing field is level and real equality is achieved.