March 8, 2021 by Amanda Marie Atkinson, Beth Meadows, Mwaka Nanyangwe, and Harry Sumnall, the Public Health Institute Liverpool John Moores University. From the blog of Alcohol Health Alliance.

How the alcohol industry, through “brand activism” uses International Women’s Day to sell its products to women.

Throughout the 20th and 21st century, International Women’s Day (IWD) has undergone many transformations and a more recent development is the increasing commodification of the event, and of feminism more generally, by businesses, including the alcohol industry.

What the industry does is called “brand activism” or “cause marketing”, that is: associating a company or an industry with a social movement or campaign (e.g., Black Lives Matter movement, Pride). This action benefits both parties, but it’s a way to appeal the women’s values.

An Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded study shows that a move away from sexist content such as the (hyper)sexualization of women’s body, and an increasing use of gender equality and empowerment messaging are what the alcohol industry is doing.  For example, The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a consumer organisation in the UK that hosts regular beer festivals across the country, recently banned sexist marketing that sexualises and demeans women, declaring that they were ‘taking a stance’ against outdated and discriminatory attitudes, while also increasing alcohol sales among women. 

However,  our research shows that marketing continues to be dominated by stereotypical imagery and narrow definitions of femininity. This includes the ‘pinkification’ of products, the use of glitter and floral images, and a focus on appearance such as competitions to win accessories such as make up and fake tan.

There are many other examples showing how alcohol brands are commodifying feminism in mainstream alcohol activities:

– Guinness on social media posts content to celebrate women on International Women’s Day

– Bacardi celebrates its female staff through social media and campaigns

– Smirnoff Equalising Music Campaign that aims to raise awareness of women’s under representation in the music industry.

– Brew Dog’s Bloody Good Beer, which celebrated the passing a Bill in Scotland that will make menstrual products free to all who need them, after years of campaigning by predominantly female-led activist groups

– Stella Artois collaborates with and Matt Damon to promote a limited-edition drinking vessel to help provide 5 years of clean water

To support the Black Lives Matter movement, black women are also specifically targeted. For example, Barefoot’s Purple Light and #WeStanForHer projects in the US, which celebrate Black women and inclusivity, and promote economic equality for Black women through a small grants scheme, stereotypically for beauty-based businesses.

Women’s alcohol use has long been associated with empowerment, reflecting increased economic independence and freedom to participate in and enjoy leisure activities once dominated by men. It is important to recognise these views, yet the use of gender-equality messaging to promote a potentially harmful consumer product also requires scrutiny.

Although recent shifts away from overtly sexist messaging is welcomed, the use of gender equality messages may simply be an opportunity for brands to increase sales, whilst failing to meaningfully address the key issues that underlie these campaigns, including the structural gender inequalities at play in society that disadvantage women, including those that in public drinking spaces such as sexual harassment and assault. 

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