Research by Carol Emslie, a professor of substance use and misuse at the School of Health and Life Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, shows how alcohol companies harness the fact that women want to retain their identities as they go through various life changes. When Emslie and her colleagues talked to women in their 30s and 40s, they found that many viewed drinking as a way to “show their identity beyond the responsibilities associated with being a woman in midlife”, such as navigating career or childcare pressures. Getting together for a few drinks after work to laugh and relax was especially important for them, she says. “Women also felt that they were transformed back to carefree youth, away from their responsibilities.”
This is really straight out of the tobacco industry playbook – Carol Emslie
It’s these desires that marketers zero in on to get women to buy alcohol. “We’ve seen a move away from sexualising women to sell alcohol to men towards alcohol brands trying to align their products with sophistication, women’s empowerment and with female friendship,” she says. “This is really straight out of the tobacco industry playbook, with slogans such as ‘n the ‘60s.” The famous Virginia Slims cigarette campaign attempted to cash in on the ‘women’s lib’ movement of the time, trying to attract female consumers who identified with the movement.
Anathansia Daskalopoulou says the trend towards female-focused marketing is unsurprising given the rise in women’s socioeconomic power. That’s led, she says, to the emergence of multiple new alcohol products targeting female customers, from fruit-flavoured beers to low-calorie beverages. “We see a focus on slimness, weight, pink packaging, glitter, messages of sisterhood, all-female friendships, motherhood, and also the all-time favourite, sexiness,” she says. “Messages of empowerment have increased, [as well as] of a celebration of women – for example, in association with International Women’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and even Mother’s Day.”
There are of course multiple sectors where women have been crying out for more products aimed specifically at them; to name but a few. But when it comes to alcohol, marketing to particular groups can have worrying consequences.
Kate Baily, a West Sussex-based podcast host and the co-author of the book Love Yourself Sober: A Self-Care Guide to Alcohol-Free Living for Busy Mothers, says the impact of alcohol marketing on mothers is an area of concern. Feminised marketing popularised concepts like ‘mummy juice’ and ‘wine o’clock’, linking them to how busy women navigated anxiety. That meant, says Baily, that “women were using alcohol [as] an acceptable face of self-medication and stress release. We were sold it as this kind of reward at the end of the day.”
Baily, who also points to social media as a big driver of ‘feminised’ drinking, believes ‘mummy wine time’ started from a good place. Women were seeing mummy influencers making “cupcakes and looking like a supermodel”, and in response came photos of “real” mums, breast-feeding in public inside restrooms at laundromats. But she believes that “real” image of motherhood then “got coupled with drinking”. “You’d have [images] of bottles of wines in prams,” she says, with messages like “calm on the outside, prosecco on the inside”, a sentiment that marketeers then worked to cash in on.
Feminised marketing popularised concepts like ‘mummy juice’ and ‘wine o’clock’, linking them to how busy women navigated anxiety
This, she says, can create unhealthy habits. “We feel that mums are a very vulnerable group in terms of their mental health. One in three experience mental health issues in early motherhood,” she says. That means some are at risk of sliding down the scale of alcohol use disorder, particularly if they are drinking in