Feminist progress

Women in the 21st century are potentially the most powerful drivers for sustainable human development and global prosperity. But as a group they are also – still – suffering from pervasive inequalities, massive health threats and entrenched poverty.

There is no question that women and girls have achieved considerable progress in recent decades, years and months. For example, women outnumber men in colleges and universities across the western world. Millennial women are better educated than their male peers. Life expectancy of women is also higher.

Big Alcohol’s attack on feminist achievements

However, such advances in Women’s Rights are being jeopardized. The progress in gender equality is being threatened. The achievements of the feminist movement are under attack by an old foe. The alcohol industry is aggressively targeting (young) women to recruit them as new consumers of their products.

After a century of portraying women as objects; after an avalanche of alcohol marketing that has been and continues sexualizing and de-humanizing women; after decades and millions a of dollars spent to oppose women’s voting rights and gender equality; Big Alcohol has now discovered feminism  and the emancipated woman that could help boost their profits. As the alcohol industry has struggled with stagnating profits across the Western world, major alcohol companies have started exploring how to “hunt down new revenue streams”, as Business Insider Australia reported in late 2014.

That can’t be emancipation

The success of Big Alcohol’s effort to “hunt down” women and girls for profits comes at a high price. Studies show that women now consume as much alcohol as men, and it’s a problem: Binge alcohol use is rising. Mental ill-health and addiction crisis among women. Liver disease epidemic. Accidents, injuries, violence, including sexual violence and premature deaths. Marginalization of alcohol-free lifestyle choices. Stigma about female alcohol use and intoxication in the media.

Big Alcohol’s relentless push for women and girls to take up and consume more alcohol has worked – for Big Alcohol, but not for women and girls, their families, communities, and societies. We see it, for example, in the liver disease epidemic among young women, with university degrees. On the cusp of an emancipated, self-determined and empowered life, they end up in hospitals for treatment of diseased livers.

It is difficult to be healthy and to raise healthy children in a toxic cultural environment, an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images and that constantly sacrifices our health and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit,” says Jean Kilbourne.

Big Alcohol’s attack on reality and history

Big Alcohol’s unprecedented push to hook women and girls to their brands and products is pervasive and obvious in product design and marketing messages. Products especially designed to appeal to women, both in taste and design; marketing campaigns targeting women; and packaging, and messaging crafted to attract girls and women – Big Alcohol is serious and aggressive about converting women into customers, after decades of de-humanizing, sexualizing and objectifying women. It’s this track record that they need us to forget.

Therefore, Big Alcohol is buying big time PR campaigns to link to the feminist cause and associate itself with positive values of Women’s Human Rights, gender equality and women empowerment. One example tells the whole story immediately:

Portman Group joins calls to stamp out sexist alcohol marketing,” headline on March 1, 2018.

The Portman Group is the alcohol industry’s front group in the United Kingdom. Pretty openly they admit that alcohol marketing has been sexist until now. One member of the Portman Group is Diageo, the world’s largest liquor producer. They, too, have discovered that the gender equality topic helps them sell more alcohol:

Diageo partners Smirnoff with Spotify in ‘Equalizing Music’ push,” headline on March 6, 2018.

Another example comes from the world’s biggest beer producer:

Anheuser-Busch InBev, Matt Damon line up Stella Artois, Water.org campaign,” headline on February 21, 2018.

The “Buy A Lady A Drink” campaign is a controversial partnership.

Diageo has also announced it would join “… More Than 350 CEOs in Commitment to Advance Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace” (headline on March 1, 2018). Furthermore, Diageo is “celebrating the women behind its super-premium rum brand, Zacapa” (headline on March 5, 2018) and it joined the “advertising industry’s equality push,” (headline February 22, 2018).

Just in time for International Women’s Day (and Women’s History Month in the United States) Diageo has launched “Jane Walker Whiskey“. The female branded whiskey is just the latest example for an alcohol industry push into feminism.

Jane Walker is a marketing gimmick, replacing the Johnny Walker label in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re are made to believe. This temporary rebranding is an obvious attempt to hook more women to whiskey. Diageo described the introduction of the Jane Walker Edition as ‘another symbol of the brand’s commitment to progress’, and a statement of its support for female empowerment causes, with $1 from every bottle produced donated to charities. An alcohol company can hardly expose itself more obviously as out of step with the real feminist movement.

This is another cynical attempt to usurp positive values of women empowerment for corporate profits. It’s an outright attack on reality and history. The women’s equal rights cause has had to contend with a massive foe since its inception: Big Alcohol.

The liquor industry was once the most powerful opponent of granting women their civil rights,” writes Elaine Weiss in a New York Times op-ed.

A century ago women fought the liquor industry as a menace to public health, accusing the booze business of putting the welfare of women and families in danger by selling so much alcohol to their menfolk.

Today a new public health crisis looms, but it’s women themselves being willingly seduced to [consume] more.”

As women fought more than a century ago to protect themselves, their families and communities from raging alcohol harm, so are they fighting today. Back then the struggle took place in the United States, Sweden, UK or Germany. These days similar campaigns are being fought in India, Kenya and Brazil. Same fight, different places, and same foe – the alcohol industry.

Corporate profits over women empowerment

The companies and their brands listed here, all have a dirty and appalling track record of sexist alcohol advertising. They also have a track record of opposing and derailing public policies that would help promote women’s health and socio-economic well-being. And all of their unethical business practices today are rooted in Big Alcohol’s tradition of opposing women’s voting rights and gender equality.

History is clear: when the alcohol industry had the chance to be part of advancing Women’s Human Rights, it chose unequivocally: their own profits. And the alcohol industry keeps choosing marketing practices that subordinate, de-humanize and sexualize women. When Big Alcohol executives get to choose whether or not to be part of creating a culture of gender equality and women empowerment that is immune to men’s violence against women, they choose profits over women empowerment. Only now that women and girls have been identified as “emerging market” with vast potential for corporate profits they pretend to care for feminist values.

I call time’s up for this charade.

We cannot allow the alcohol industry to get away with the attempt to re-write history and to re-brand themselves. As feminists we cannot stay idly by as Big Alcohol tries to associate itself with the values of Women’s Human Rights, gender equality and women empowerment.

Diageo is an official “supporter” of the International Women’s Day. This is appalling and wrong. And it’s a relation that must end. How can a company that ran commercials like this, ever be associated with gender equality and women empowerment?

To protect the advancements we have made and to finally reach gender equality and Women’s full human rights, it is imperative to expose the alcohol industry for their track record and true motives.

Time’s up for Big Alcohol usurping feminist values.

Time’s up for Big Alcohol exploiting women and girls.

Also published on Medium.