Following Dr Jennifer Wallis’s fundraising for Sobertember last year, on behalf of Nacoa, she has decided to go a whole year with no alcohol to raise further funds. She is a historian and lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, whose work focuses on medical and psychiatric history.
Over four blog instalments, Jennifer will be writing about the experience of abstaining from drink for one year, her research, and reflecting on alcohol and the family from her unique historical perspective.
Wackaging, Wine and the Codification of Alcohol Advertising
There’s a curious advert on the London tube at the moment. Standing in a sweltering hot Bakerloo line carriage one morning, staring slightly bleary-eyed at the ads, I read:
‘I heart wines. NOT every DAY, YOU UNDERSTAND. Not all the time. Just sometimes. YOU KNOW, in moderation. As a treat. With food, ideally. OR A FILM. MAYBE OVER A CHINWAG WITH FRIENDS. Or if it’s sunny. THAT TENDS TO WORK QUITE WELL. ALSO ON HOLS. Sometimes at the weekend. But you know. NOT every DAY. OBVS.
Not a charity ad to raise awareness of excessive drinking, but promoting i heart Wines, a company whose wares can be spotted on many a supermarket shelf. With their basic labels adorned with coloured hearts corresponding to the variant of wine, i heart Wine’s products have tapped into a much broader fad for kitsch and cutesy (the less charitable might say nauseating) marketing. A fair bit of the blame can be laid at the feet of the so-called ‘wackaging’ trend: smoothies that speak in the first person (‘Please keep me cold’) and milkshake labels shouting “Get in fella!” (?).
When similar tactics are applied to the marketing of alcohol there’s often a giggling, nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude towards personal drinking habits. ‘i heart Wines … in moderation’ and certainly ‘not every day’ – that would be excessive. Yet the language of this ad and others like it is eerily similar to the justifications of the dependent drinker. It is rendered innocuous by the branding: the cute love heart, the girlish script, the use of phrases like ‘i heart’ and ‘obvs’. If we were to place those same sentiments next to an image of a dishevelled man, slumped on a park bench clutching a half-empty bottle of wine, they would generally be taken to signal personal failure rather than carefree sociability, yet much the same ad text could be utilised and still make perfect sense.
This positioning of drinking as an endearing personal attribute is especially evident when it comes to women and wine. The now-defunct ‘Mommy Juice’ brand offered customers a simple choice of red or white wine, both bottles adorned with a cartoon image of a zen-like mother juggling home, work, and childcare. (Mommy Juice would find themselves engaged in a legal battle with Mommy’s Time Out wine, proving that more than one company thought this a clever marketing ploy.) Countless online stores and Etsy entrepreneurs offer wine glasses adorned with the phrase ‘Mommy’s juice’, socks with soles printed with ‘If you can read this bring Mummy wine’, and shopping bags declaring that inside is ‘Mummy’s wine (& some food for the kids and stuff)’. (Replace ‘wine’ with ‘Special Brew’, delete the rest, and you have my teenage years. Which were, as you can imagine, hilarious.)
My point here isn’t anti-drink, or anti- hard-working women having a glass of wine of an evening. It’s the rather strange infantilisation of drinking behaviour that products like Mommy Juice or i heart Wines trade upon. The i heart Wines ad manages to transform personal drinking behaviour into something of a quirky character trait: “Look at me! I am fun and a bit mad and I drink (perhaps, wink-wink) a lot of wine.” There’s something particularly irritating about ‘Mommy’s Juice’ glasses and similar products, suggesting that by simply drinking a glass of wine women are doing something terribly subversive.
Whilst this stems partly from my personal annoyance at cringe-worthy “Aren’t I fun?!” marketing campaigns, I think there’s a more serious point at issue here. Ads like that produced by i heart Wines blur the boundary between drinking and, well, drinking. At what point does the consumer’s love of wine with friends/films/food shade into a situation in which almost all activities in life are dependent upon a glass or two of red or white? Transforming the personal reassurances of the alcoholic into the life-affirming mantra of the yummy mummy or aspiring socialite alters the way we talk about alcohol dependence. It is harder to recognise excessive drinking as a problem if we have bought into the idea that frequent drinking is something that makes us happier, ‘cooler’, adults.
It is harder to broach the topic of excessive drinking seriously if those around you view it as something amusing, slightly subversive, and an important part of personal identity. My own experiences taught me that an alcohol dependent parent will always have a reason to ‘reward’ themselves with a drink – and often this reason is the child themselves (“Of course I drink with you kids annoying me all day!” etc.). Yes, people should be able to enjoy that glass of wine, but can we perhaps not make a virtue out of being unable to discern the boundaries between moderation and excess?