1st March 2023; Dr. Amanda Atkinson ; Institute of Alcohol Studies, London

Alcohol marketing influences alcohol use and is designed to forge positive relationships between (potential) consumers, brands, and alcohol consumption. As with other consumer goods, alcohol marketing is highly gendered in nature; it targets men, women, and increasingly other genders (i.e. non binary), in different ways, particularly through connotations of femininity and masculinity.

In a recent research programme we explored how alcohol brands target and represent women (see www.equalisenightlifeproject.com) who consume alcohol, and how this might influence their identity-making and relationships with alcohol. The research also examined how marketing might establish gendered social norms around drinking.

Whilst it is important to explore marketing influence on people who consume alcohol – and most research in this area has focused on that – it is also important that the impact of marketing on individuals who do not drink due to harmful or problematic use, or who may be vulnerable to alcohol harms, is also considered.

However, to date there is limited research in this area. We recently explored this in research with women who do not currently drink and who self-reported a history of problems with alcohol use. We conducted in depth interviews with women (n=15) who participated in the online ‘positive sobriety’ community on Instagram, as an alternative to traditional AA 12-step and mutual aid support programmes. 

Managing the omnipresence of alcohol marketing, and female targeted content, in everyday experiences of sobriety

Positive online sobriety communities tend to be female focussed, and emphasise the positives of not drinking, in ways that counter the messages commonly promoted by the alcohol industry. Women were hyperaware of the omnipresence of alcohol marketing in everyday life, and engaged in many tactics (e.g. ad blocks, avoiding alcohol aisles in supermarkets), particularly in the early stages of sobriety, to reduce their exposure to marketing, in case it affected their abstinence.

In the words of Macy (names have been changed), one of our interviewees, during her time drinking she felt she had been in ‘the alcohol Matrix’, and since she had stopped drinking, felt ‘unplugged’ and ‘tuned in’ to the extent to which alcohol is marketed in society.

Three main female targeted marketing messages were discussed, and these were thought to impact drinking, lived experience and sense of self. Women negotiated and countered these messages in their online content and discussions of sobriety.

Firstly, associations between alcohol use and motherhood were regarded as particularly problematic. Women referred to ‘Mummy wine culture’ as a feminine trend of concern that was encouraged by alcohol marketing and wider consumer goods industries (e.g. glasses and greetings cards), as well as publicly generated content on social media (e.g. alcohol-related content created and posted by consumers, including mothers and motherhood ‘influencers’).

Those who were mothers discussed how the stresses of motherhood had contributed to their own problematic drinking, and how motherhood marketing that (indirectly) presented alcohol use as a way to relieve stress and as a reward for parenting, had normalised and provided a justification for their drinking.

Marketing that normalises drinking within the identity of mother was also regarded as having led to the perception that alcohol use was an act of empowerment, and as a way to reclaim their independence from their new identity as a ‘mum’.

Secondly, friendship-based marketing, that presented alcohol use as integral to female friendship, was regarded as having prolonged their problematic drinking and impacting their experiences of sobriety. Such messaging had fed into their perception that drinking was essential to female bonding and friendships, and as framing drinking as crucial to being labelled as a ‘fun’ person.

Many discussed the association between alcohol and friendship as a barrier to reducing their drinking or attempting sobriety, due to fears of being labelled ‘boring,’ ‘missing out’ and losing friends. Such marketing had made their sobriety more difficult, particularly in the early stages, and led to feelings of exclusion in social situations.

Women now used their online content to counter such messaging, by presenting sobriety as ‘fun’ (i.e. ‘sober not boring’), and the community as a source of female friendship. Whilst some had not consumed no and low alcohol products at the beginning of their abstinence due to a fear of being triggered to drink, all had tried to manage this sense of exclusion by consuming these products and ‘mocktails’. This allowed them to disguise their non-drinking in the initial stages of abstention and was used to deflect questions from others about the reasons for not drinking, and the risk being labelled an ‘alcoholic’. These drinks helped them to create a sense of inclusion, whilst remaining in control of their sobriety.

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