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January 2012, Week 3

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The Alcohol Industry's Stealth 'Joe Camel' Strategy

Submitted by Anne Landman
January 10, 2012
http://www.prwatch.org/node/11212

A new study published in the January 2012 issue of the
American Journal of Public Health examines the
sophisticated PR and marketing strategies that alcoholic
beverage companies have used to re-make the image of
distilled spirits to appeal to underage drinkers. The
article, "Joe Camel in a Bottle: Diageo, the Smirnoff
Brand, and the Transformation of the Youth Alcohol
Market," by James Mosher, utilizes a case study of
Diageo's Smirnoff brand to illustrate the tactics.

What is Diageo?

Diageo is a global liquor company with some $15 billion
in operating revenues. In 2011, it was the world's
largest marketer of alcoholic beverages. In addition to
Smirnoff, Diageo owns a list of prominent brands
including Crown Royal, Johnny Walker, Guinness and Jose
Cuervo. Diageo is also an important member of the
corporate bill mill, the American Legislative Exchange
Council. In 2011, Kenneth Lane, Vice President of
Government and Trade Relations at Diageo, represented
Diageo on ALEC's corporate "Private Enterprise Board."
In 1999, ALEC formally adopted a position (pdf) opposing
federally-mandated blood alcohol levels for drunk
driving. In 2003, ALEC produced a "model" bill titled
"The Drug and Alcohol Defense Act," (pdf), that handed a
legal advantage to alcohol manufacturers in personal
injury cases.

In early 2004, USAToday reported on a wave of lawsuits
being filed nationally against big alcohol
manufacturers, including Diageo, citing these companies'
targeting of youth. According to USAToday, this wave of
suits sought "huge damages for tens of thousands of
underage smokers and their parents," particularly in
cases where kids had died. ALEC's model bill is written
so broadly to apply to all civil suits in which it could
potentially be used to help protect the industry from
these types of legal suits. ALEC corporations, including
Big PhRMA and tobacco companies, also pursue an anti-
consumer agenda in numerous ways as documented
extensively by the Center for Media and Democracy in
PRWatch as part CMD's ALEC Exposed project.

A New Formula for the Youth Market -- "Alcopop"

In the early 1990s, beer was the runaway favorite
alcoholic beverage among junior high and high school
students who reported binge drinking. Distilled spirits,
with their more harsh taste, were considered the
preferred drink of an older, aging market. Beer could
also be advertised on television and sold in convenience
stores, advantages not available to the makers of
distilled spirits. These factors gave beer makers
widespread access to a younger market, but limited
distilled spirits manufacturers' access to youth,
blocking their ability to grow their future market.

To gain access to the important youth market, in 1999
Smirnoff developed a whole new kind of flavored
alcoholic beverage. It started out as beer in the
initial manufacturing process, but later in the process
Smirnoff drained off the beer base and replaced it with
"flavorings" containing distilled spirits. By the end of
the manufacturing process, distilled spirits accounted
for up to 99 percent of the alcohol in the new drink.
Smirnoff called the new drink "Smirnoff Ice," and
characterized it as a "flavored malt beverage."

Because the new drink began as a beer, Smirnoff
convinced regulators to let them market it as a beer.
This coveted designation allowed them to advertise the
product on TV and sell it in convenience stores, handing
Smirnoff far wider access to the youth market. Smirnoff
began pouring tens of millions of dollars into TV ads.
In 2002, the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth
reported that more than 1,500 Smirnoff Ice ads ran on TV
programs that had disproportionately youthful audiences,
in blatant violation of the alcohol industry's own
voluntary code. As CMD previously reported, such
voluntary industry codes, particularly in the alcohol
industry, have virtually nonexistent enforcement
mechanisms.

Smirnoff gave its new drink candy-like flavors that
appealed to youth, like Wild Grape, Cherry Lime,
Raspberry Burst and Watermelon. Public health advocates
dubbed the new drink "alcopop" -- a combination of the
words "alcohol" and "pop" -- and pointed out that it was
especially appealing to underage drinkers. Indeed, young
drinkers' use of Smirnoff Ice grew rapidly after its
introduction. Between 2000 and 2002, Smirnoff Ice helped
grow its new "alcopop" market from 0.6 percent to 29
percent. By 2009, a study on adolescent drug use showed
64 percent of 8th graders reported regularly using
alcopops.

A "Corporate Responsibility" Strategy

At the same time Diageo re-engineered the Smirnoff brand
to appeal to a younger audience, it launched a PR and
lobbying campaign aimed at convincing policymakers and
the public that the company was committed to reducing
underage drinking. This "corporate responsibility"
strategy mirrors that used by tobacco companies in the
1990s after they came under fire for targeting youth.
Diageo even hired former Philip Morris vice president
Guy L. Smith to head its marketing and PR department and
design and implement the new youth drinking prevention
campaign. Just like tobacco companies, Diageo
established its own "responsible marketing" code,
started broadcasting "responsibility" ads on television
aimed at educating viewers on how to prevent underage
drinking, and started pouring funding into prevention
programs that focused on retail practices and public
awareness -- topics that take the focus off of alcohol
industry practices.

The author of the study, James Mosher, found that even
though the U.S. Surgeon General in 2007 declared
underage drinking a public health crisis, the practices
of the alcohol industry have largely escaped notice and
have simply not been a priority for public health
agencies. Diageo and other brands of alcohol have
extended their reach into the youth market by routinely
advertising on social network sites, interactive
websites, internet games, and by using viral marketing
tactics and YouTube videos, all of which are largely
unregulated and have a high likelihood of reaching
underage audiences. Yet data on alcohol brand
preferences among youth and the industry's digital
marketing activities are simply not collected, and local
state and federal public health agencies simply ignore
this information.

Perhaps Mosher's study and what it reveals about alcohol
industry marketing practices will draw increased
attention to the industry's corporate marketing and
promotions aimed at youth.

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