The alcohol industry exploits Christmas as another marketing opportunity to normalize alcohol use, drive more sales and increase their profit margins. Big Alcohol does this through several well-planned strategies to get more people to consume alcohol during the Christmas season, such as promotional deals and alcohol gift boxes.
But the price of increased alcohol sales is paid by people, as can be seen in the rising alcohol death toll in the UK.

Alcohol marketing self-regulation leaves the most vulnerable unprotected from Big Alcohol

The alcohol industry piggy backs on every notable holiday in the calendar to push more of their products and increase their profits. And the Christmas season is one of the most lucrative times of the year for Big Alcohol.

For instance, a recent report by the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) in the United Kingdom (UK) titled “No escape: How alcohol marketing preys on children and vulnerable people” found:

  1. The marketing of alcohol at special events made it difficult for people with an alcohol use disorder or in recovery to fully participate in everyday life,
  2. The aggressive marketing of alcohol could trigger relapse, and
  3. Children were regularly exposed to alcohol marketing in Britain.

Previously, a poll done by Cancer Research UK with more than 2,500 young people found that 82% of 11- to 17-year-olds had seen alcohol marketing in the previous month.

There is no doubt that alcohol marketing is ubiquitous in today’s society. And millions of vulnerable are getting exposed to alcohol promotions, especially children and youth, people with alcohol use problems, and those living in recovery. In countries like Britain where alcohol marketing is self-regulated by the alcohol industry the problems are even worse. Australia is another country with industry self-regulated alcohol marketing and severe problems.

In 2020, researchers at the George Institute for Global Health reviewed over 600 alcohol ads  to identify patterns in the use of particular themes in alcohol advertising across different types of media. They found:

  • Over half of the ads featured themes that are known to appeal to young people or encourage high-risk alcohol use – these themes included humour, value for money, sports, and friendship.
  • Overall, humour was the most common theme (present in 18% of ads), followed by value for money (14%), sports (14%), and bulk purchases (10%).
  • Humour often co-occurred with other themes, including sexual attraction, mateship, manliness, and partying.

For the alcohol industry Christmas is another marketing opportunity to normalize alcohol use. Quite like how the industry uses Women’s Day to push alcohol on women and every other more or less special calendar day, like Valentine’s Day, Pride Month, Mother’s Day and even Pancake Day to market alcohol.

Movendi International has explored in a previous opinion piece how the alcohol industry manufactures holidays to drive the alcohol norm.

Six strategies that the alcohol industry and retail giants use to push more alcohol sales during Christmas

1. Starting the Christmas alcohol marketing early

Retailers start their Christmas alcohol marketing as early as September. Stocking up and giving more shelf space for alcohol products which sell during the season.

For example, Pernod Ricard UK tells convenience stores to “push premium early in the season.” The company urges retailers to do this by dangling a cut of the £15.5 million profits during the season. The company points out that for convenience stores the increase in Christmas premium alcohol sales happens later than for grocery stores and on-trade outlets. This way Big Alcohol is instigating the fear of missing out on such massive profits for convenience store retailers like dangling the proverbial carrot in front of the horse.

Culturally, getting together has always been about sharing a meal, but it has become a ten-day period and it has absolutely been hijacked by the food and drink industry,” said Donal O’Shea, the UK’s clinical lead on obesity in 2018, as per The Times.

And I suppose it has been hijacked by industry more generally and has become a time of excess.”

Donal O’Shea, the UK’s clinical lead on obesity in 2018

The pervasive alcohol norms around Christmas are further perpetuated by portraying alcohol in marketing as integral and necessary element of the festive season.

2. Focusing on premiumization to drive higher profits

Big Alcohol and retailers both know people spend more money during the Christmas season. Therefore they use this time to push the “premium” range of alcohol products. One retailer from Londis Yealmpton in Devon, UK said that the premium wine category peaks in sales during Christmas season.

This theory is backed by shopper insights experts at HIM who encourage retailers to stock up more on an “extended range of alcohol” in “higher affluent areas”.

For example, Pernod Ricard pushes retailers to focus on premium range gin, Irish whiskey, blended Scotch and vodka products during the Christmas season. The alcohol giant has been deploying increasing budgets for heavy Christmas marketing. In 2019, their Christmas ads spending amounted to £5 million pounds in the UK alone, which was 70% more than in 2018.

While liquor and wine are marketed heavily during the season, according to Nielsen, more than half of beer and cider value sales happen over the festive period. Therefore, retailers are now heavily marketing premium categories of all alcohol products with the hope of increasing their profits by exploiting the Christmas season.

Heineken provides a clear example. The beer giant markets their higher priced products heavily to increase sales of their premium lager brands. They push retailers to use the Christmas season to increase sales of their higher priced Sol and Birra Moretti lager brands.

3. Marketing ginger/ berry/ fruit infused alcohol products

The alcohol industry releases Christmas themed alcohol products. Most of these are “flavored” alcohols. For example, Stone’s released a Ginger infused Gin for the Christmas season back in 2019 in addition to their Ginger Wine. Accolade’s Echo Falls brand has the Summer Berries Pink Gin which is said to include strawberry and juniper aiming at the Christmas season.

However, all alcohol products contain the same chemical, ethanol. And this active ingredient ethanol causes cancer and is toxic to human organs. By dressing it up with flavors, the alcohol industry is attempting to give “range” to the same chemical, just marketed in different ways to exploit specific holidays for profit maximization.

4. Tasting/ sampling events and other alcohol promotional events during the season

Retailers use tasting events to influence people to buy certain products and also to target people specifically during the Christmas season. Promotions such as gin or whisky of the month push people to buy more specific products. During the Christmas season, wine tasting events push people to buy more of the expensive premium range wines.

Some retailers even offer a free bottle of wine as a prize for taking part in the sampling events.

There are also other promotional offers used by the alcohol industry, such as price marked packs which offer more alcohol at cheaper prices.

All these tactics are used to drive more sales and increase the profits of the alcohol industry.

Shockingly, one retailer actually admitted that after tastings people would buy several cases of a wine and would finish it all before Christmas and thus came back for even more.

5. Marketing alcohol gift boxes

The pervasive alcohol norm around Christmas promoted by the alcohol industry pushes alcohol as a gift option during the festive season. The industry and retailers together release alcohol Christmas gift packs perpetuating the link between Christmas and alcohol.

According to Pernod Ricard, 44% of UK consumers gave gin as a gift in 2018. Maximizing on this trend, the Plymouth brand launched a premium gift box in 2019 which was priced at £26.99.

Retailers maximize on this trend by dedicating entire stands or shelfs for alcohol gift boxes. By placing these stands in highly visible places, retailers push higher sales through customers coming in for last minute gift purchases. It’s already wrapped and in a nice box, making it one of the easiest gifts to give.

6. Digital media marketing

Big Alcohol corporations and retailers both dress their social media and digital marketing in Christmas theme, advertising the themed products or promotions on web pages and social media channels.

One report from Australia released in 2020, by VicHealth, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) found:

  • Children are surrounded by digital marketing of harmful products via websites, social media, gaming and influencers.
    • Their viewing and browsing habits are also being monitored and recorded by harmful industries, to be used for marketing and promotion.
  • Digital marketing reaches young children, with evidence that this affects their attitudes, habits, consumption and health later in life.
  • Children are exposed to a growing range of marketing activities online, a mix of clear advertising and more subtle techniques, which are harder to recognize by children and adults.

Festive Appropriation: Pernod Ricard hijacks ‘Ubuntu’ concept

Pernod Ricard has hijacked the ‘Ubuntu’ concept for their 2021 Christmas campaign in South Africa rolled out in the Phakamisa ispirit (lift the spirit) theme.

Through the campaign the company is giving away three locally-made gifts to South Africans who purchase five of Pernod Ricard’s alcohol brands. By promoting the campaign as lifting local artisans the company is strategically generating positive media coverage for their brands while driving up profits. Pernod Ricard is investing at leat R38 million into the campaign.

However, alcohol industry CSR projects and organizations are proven to not reduce alcohol harms but instead protect industry profits and their reputation.

Nevertheless, it seems the Gauteng government has also fallen for this strategy of Pernod Ricard. The company has partnered with the Gauteng Department of Economic Development to launch their Christmas campaign. The City of Ekurhuleni Municipality has also fallen into the trap and donated a warehouse in Thokoza for the campaign.

Rather than doing actual social good, such campaigns generate goodwill for the alcohol industry. Big Alcohol in turn uses CSR projects as examples of their “social responsibility” and deploys “goodwill” as currency to lobby against any effort to improve alcohol policy development in the country on state and national levels.

The Heineken example in South Africa has shown that the alcohol industry is only doing good for themselves through their CSR initiatives in the country. In reality alcohol is worsening problems in South Africa.

For example:

  • Authorities have cited the increase of alcohol availability after lifting of the temporary alcohol sales ban as a reason for rising crime in the first quarter of the 2021/2022 financial year.
  • A recent review of evidence by the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA) and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) showed that alcohol drives gender based violence (GBV) in the country. 

Heineken Christmas campaign pushes free alcohol

One significant driver of alcohol harm, inaddition to easy and wide availability, is cheap alcohol.

Heineken is not even attempting to hide their intentions with this year’s Christmas campaign in the United States (U.S.). They are directly offering free beer to people. The Heineken campaign – designed by the agency Fast Horse – will give people a box of free beer if any online order did not arrive due to supply chain issues. The box will also have a prepaid debit card with enough cash to cover a six pack of Heineken beer.

This campaign will be running in major cities: New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Orlando, Fla. and Tampa, Fla. between December 10 to 25, this year.

This is not the first time Fast Horse designed an unethical campaign for Heineken. They also were behind the “Bring Your Beer to Work Day” campaign, ironically promoting non alcoholic beer but the hidden target of the campaign was normalize alcohol use in completely new, and previously off-limits spaces.

With the free beer Christmas campaign, Heineken contradicts its own campaign in January to latch on to Dry January with their non alcoholic beer. This reveals that Big Alcohol jumps on any trend to promote its alcoholic brands.

Communities in the UK advocate for better protections from Big Alcohol

In the UK, the AHA is calling for alcohol policy improvements to protect citizens from alcohol harm specifically during the festive season. The AHA represents more than 60 non-governmental organisations

The Government must now introduce comprehensive marketing restrictions in both real-world and digital spaces to ensure that vulnerable adults and children are protected from alcohol advertising and its harm,” said Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the AHA, as per The Daily Mail.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman, AHA

The Health Care Bill that aims to introduce advertising restrictions such as a 9pm watershed for ‘less healthy food or drink’ advertising on TV and the prohibition of online campaigns at the end of 2022. But due to Big Alcohol lobbying, alcohol is omitted from this Bill. In the UK alcohol has long been an ignored problem, but with a rising alcohol death toll, the government cannot afford to ignore alcohol anymore. Fast, decisive action is needed to protect citizens.

The current self-regulatory alcohol marketing system is failing to protect our children and vulnerable adults from exposure to alcohol advertising,” said Christian Wakeford, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm, as per The Daily Mail.

Christian Wakeford, chairman, All Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm

Wakeford further drew comparisons between tobacco control, proposed policies to reduce junk food consumption and the state of alcohol policy in the UK. Clearly alcohol policy development was not up to standard.

Restrictions for tobacco advertising have been in place for many years, and stricter requirements have been proposed for junk food advertising,” said Mr Wakeford, as per The Daily Mail.

Like alcohol, these products can cause harm to our health. Alcohol should be no exception. We need to ensure alcohol marketing regulations are entirely independent of the industry and are effective to protect the most vulnerable in our society.”

Christian Wakeford, chairman, All Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm


Daily Mail UK: “Christmas and sporting events spark a ‘constant bombardment’ of alcohol advertising that can cause huge issues for addicts trying to stay sober, experts warn

The Times: “Christmas ‘hijacked by food and drink giants’

The Conversation: “How alcohol companies are using International Women’s Day to sell more drinks to women

Convenience Store: “Christmas alcohol: Playing the long game

News 24: “Pernod Ricard wants you to raise a glass to the spirit of ubuntu this festive season

The Business Journals: “Fast Horse’s holiday campaign for Heineken: IOU boxes for late-to-arrive gifts

ADWEEK: “Heineken Provides Free Beer as Placeholder Christmas Presents