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Here’s how to make alcohol advertising fun – without promoting excess

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

March 22, 2022 | 11 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points as part of our How do you solve a problem like... series.

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How can brands make their alcoholic brands fun while not promoting overconsumption?

Last week, The Drum’s reporters downed tools to debate the best beer ads of all time. You can find out which ones our writers backed here, but it’s worth considering that at least one of those spots – Carlsberg’s ’Ice Cold In Alex’ ad from the 80s – probably wouldn’t get made today, on account of the pint-downing activities shown.

Beer brands often aim to associate their products with fun and a good time. Naturally, however, they’d rather consumers didn’t mix up their marque with the negative effects of alcohol – meaning their agencies have a tightrope to walk when creating their next ad.

How do you solve a problem like... advertising booze without promoting excess?

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Nate Woodhead, group creative director, Virtue Worldwide

We have an ‘Inside Culture’ mindset for all of our clients. It plays out differently for everyone and shapes work that goes beyond the core product stories and into evolving cultural behaviors. With all briefs I start by understanding what we want to contribute to culture. How we decide to give to our audiences becomes a barometer for responsible decision-making. Alcohol brands rely heavily on talent to help position and promote the campaigns. This is the most visible statement of fun and intent from the brand. Choose them wisely – their message is often as impactful as the creative work itself.

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Daisuke Shiga, producer, Monopo

Advertising any type of alcohol can be quite tricky, but having specific regulations, an inner training system and a clear brand direction is essential. In the global market, laws and culture differ from country to country, so agencies and brands need to establish a global messaging umbrella and then create localized rules.

You need to understand cultural differences and how the advert would be perceived by the target audience. Sometimes it’s difficult to make such decisions, so it’s considered an efficient method to work together with a local creative agency that has experience with that culture and can provide valuable insights.

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Kerry Collinge, director of marketing and partnerships Europe, System1

From Heineken’s ’Water In Majorca’ to John Smith’s ’Have It,’ beer brands used to make the funniest ads on TV. Not any more – recent high-scoring beer spots from our testing, which gauges emotional impact with audiences, have stuck to sustainability and purpose. Solid stuff, but doesn’t refresh any parts other ads aren’t reaching. Orlando Wood’s ’Look Out’ showed there are big benefits to using humor – it’s perfect for getting attention in our overloaded world – and those classic campaigns still score brilliantly today. It’s a real shame that beer brands have turned away from comedy. We’re looking to next years’ World Cup as an opportunity to bring some of the fun and belly laughs back.

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Brad Dixon, co-founder, executive creative director, Special Operations Studios

I’ve been sober for almost 15 years and take any chance I can to get repaid for those hefty bar tabs. I tend to joke around a lot in general and have a pretty light-hearted approach, but when it comes to spirits, I do take this responsibility seriously.

I focus on taste appeal, lifestyle, cultural relevance and craft, which allows us to intuitively steer away from celebrating overconsumption. Not sampling the products personally has never really been a problem – I usually have plenty of taste testers happy to share insights for free drinks.

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Bec Bowman, head of new business and client services, Side Street

I’ve worked on brands including Miller Lite in the past, and our focus isn’t on the outcome of overconsumption, but rather on the opportunity that a drink presents. For a lot of people, sharing a beer or a bottle of wine with a friend is an excuse to get together, to have a conversation and connect. And as we become older adults, it’s more difficult to make friends, so you’ll often see characters presented with different backgrounds or beliefs, who ultimately come together over a shared love of that drink. Alcohol’s utility is shown as facilitating connection over drunkenness.

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Dave Timothy, managing director, Robot Food

You have to flip the narrative from reliance to relevance. Rather than positioning your brand at the heart of the party, understand the motivations behind the occasions where people drink alcohol. Be the guest – not the host. The need states driving alcohol consumption now are much more nuanced and can provide a positive (and bouncier) springboard for creative to jump from. Look at cannabis in the US – your stereotypical ‘stoner’ is only a small segment of the growing consumer base. Contemporary, mainstream brands should reflect a spectrum of lifestyles because when and why we use alcohol and cannabis stretch far beyond ‘harmful’ behavior.

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Michael Scantlebury, founder and creative director, Impero

In the drinks business, real value is added when you premiumize brands – if a brand can charge a higher price for the same juice in the bottle, can or keg, it’s winning. Creatively this means we must position brands away from cheap plonk you chug (which carries with it all the harmful effects of overuse) to a more precious item to be savored. The problem comes when unimaginative brands and brand managers believe premiumization means making a brand posher through faux sophistication, neglecting the fact that premiumization isn’t about vain attempts to appear higher in value – it’s about having real higher value in culture, which is what good creatives should aim to do.

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Tom Harvey, co-founder, YesMore

It’s actually very easy to present beer brands as fun without endorsing harmful behaviors. Simply develop your creative backwards from a positive occasion in which why someone might be drinking alcohol (celebrations, social occasions), not a negative one (job loss, partner loss, loneliness, anxiety in a social situation). But remember the golden rule: alcohol is not the catalyst to having fun, it’s just sometimes there at the same time.

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Jade Horton, strategy partner, Taxi Studio

Beyond the legal framework alcohol brands must work in, they do have a moral duty to ensure what they say, where they say it and when they say it is aimed at a legal audience.

Whether it is responsible or not, most people drink beer socially, which brands can be a part of, as long as the focus is on adults who can make their own decisions. Or like any brand in any category, they can promote the quality of their product, or how long you wait for your pint to be pulled; equivalent to waiting to surf a gnarly wave.

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Kim Walker, strategy partner, Harbour Collective

Lots of things are harmful when pushed to excess. Cars go at 140mph. Exercising too much can kill you. People have eaten 84 hot dogs in one sitting. Just because your product is able to be used in an excessive way that could cause harm doesn’t mean you have to show it that way.

You don’t have to go to extremes to create something joyful that makes people feel something. Southern Comfort’s ‘Whatever’s comfortable’ is a great example of how staying out of the extremes can lead to extreme joy. Perhaps that’s a great lesson for creative work and for life.

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Neale Horrigan, executive creative director, Elvis

We’re all going to die at some point, but the fact that alcohol will usually speed up that process means the task of promoting it should not be taken lightly. So, it’s probably best to not think about what you can get away with, but more about what you can do responsibly. And just sticking a Drinkaware logo on it is never going to be enough.

Generally, the more acceptable and well-trodden approach is to associate the drink with a positive occasion, then advertise that instead. Sunsets, barbecues and lawn tennis are a few familiar examples of that being done well in recent years, and with not even a sip of the product in sight.

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Jeff Graham, president and chief marketing officer, Cactus

My favorite beer ads (Carlton Draught, Miller High Life, Old Milwaukee, Dos Equis, Red Stripe, Newcastle, Rolling Rock) are funny. They reflect that beer is just a fun part of life and hanging out with friends. The drink isn’t the main attraction – it’s just there to make those moments a little better. The beer should be like a character in the background, in its proper proportion. Relevant beer brands understand that minor/supporting role in life and tend to not take themselves too seriously. Instead, they make fun of beer category cliches, masculinity or even advertising generally. Those are just a couple of ways beer brands can avoid any perceived endorsement of bad behavior.

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Rob Baiocco, chief creative officer, The Bam Connection

Some of my best times have been with a few drinks, freeing inhibitions, hanging with friends. Some of my worst times have been trashed and sick from drinking too much. I imagine both of these are true for many people, and that principle drives how we approach advertising for beer, spirits and wine. Communicate and embrace the former, and never condone or encourage the latter. When concepting, certain ideas obviously cue overconsumption. Call those out immediately. Also, funny doesn’t have to be served at someone else’s expense. Ted Lasso taught us that. If it’s intended in good spirits, people likely will be less critical overall.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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