Using pop culture to promote alcohol products to young audiences is not a new strategy for Big Alcohol.
But two recent examples expose how Big Alcohol deploys pop culture to convert young Asians and Europeans to alcohol use.
One example is Heineken’s new partnership with two popular TV shows in the UK and the other is how South Korean beverage giant Hite Jinro uses Korean pop culture to market soju in Japan.

Pop culture and alcohol

Pop culture is described as a set of practices, beliefs, and objects that are dominant or prevalent in a society at a given point in time. Pop culture also encompasses the activities and feelings produced as a result of interaction with these dominant objects. Mass appeal is what drives pop culture.

Today’s pop culture is heavily influenced by mass media. Therefore, pop culture reaches the everyday lives of many people, specifically young people, and can influence their attitudes towards certain topics. In the current consumer capitalism system, pop culture is used as an instrument to mass market certain products to drive higher consumption of those products and maximize the profits of companies that produce and sell these products.

Entertainment, including film, music, television, and video games; sports; news, including people/places in the news; politics; fashion; technology; and slang are some common categories of pop culture. Products can permeate into people’s everyday lives by attaching to various pop culture categories. This way companies can influence people’s choices, including fashion sense, music taste, and food and beverage choices to push them into buying and consuming the marketed products. Ultimately, driving higher consumption of these products increases profits for the companies.

But alcohol is not an ordinary commodity. The products and practices of the alcohol industry cause serious and pervasive harm.

However, using pop culture to promote alcohol consumption, especially targeting young audiences is not a new strategy for Big Alcohol. There are at least three ways Big Alcohol is known to deploy pop culture:

  1. Sponsorship, such as through music or sports sponsorships,
  2. Product placements on popular films, TV shows, etc., and
  3. Through influencer marketing.

Two examples from UK and Japan of Big Alcohol using pop culture to promote brands and drive consumption

Heineken in the UK

Heineken recently announced partnerships with UK popular TV shows Coronation Street and Emmerdale. From April 29, 2022 the pubs featured in the two TV shows, Rovers Return in Coronation Street and Woolpack in Emmerdale will feature Heineken 0.0 beer alongside the fictional beers on the shows.

Heineken is saying that this is part of its plan to normalize alcohol-free beer. However, a recent report reveals that Big Alcohol exploits no-alcohol products to market their brands and usual alcohol products more than to promote alcohol-free products.

The report released by the Institute of Alcohol Policy Studies (IAS) was written by Dr. Emily Nicholls, a Lecturer in Sociology, at the University of York, UK. The report discloses some problematic and unethical ways in which Big Alcohol is marketing NoLos. 

  • Addition marketing. This means NoLo is marketed by alcohol companies as a product to use in addition to alcohol products. Such as on occasions where using alcohol is not an option. 
    • For example, 25% of the time, Heineken 0.0 was marketed in the “workplace of productivity” category. 
    • Heineken 0.0 was also marketed in cars or the gym. 
    • Heineken also exploited the Dry January campaign to market Heineken 0.0. 
  • Stealth marketing. This means promoting the alcohol brand as a whole, which includes alcoholic products and not just the NoLo products. 
    • This is an indirect marketing strategy that circumvents alcohol marketing laws that would apply to usual alcohol products.

Heineken used Big Alcohol’s usual strategies to market Heieneken 0.0. Heineken positions its 0.0 product as something additional – to avoid replacement of their ethanol beers – to the normalized alcohol settings or occasions.

Heineken marketed their overall brand extensively in the guise of Heineken 0.0 advertisements in sports. Over 25% of Instagram posts and 25% of hashtags analyzed were sports-related. The posts were related predominantly to the sponsorship of UEFA (football) or to Formula One (motor racing). This mirrors the usual Big Alcohol strategies in sports marketing which Movendi International has exposed extensively. Alcohol – a harmful and unhealthy substance – should have no place in sports, which is considered a health-promoting activity by many. 

The report notes that sports sponsorship is a way in which the alcohol industry increases brand awareness and encourages consumption. Participants of the study observed that the Heineken 0.0 bottle is almost the same as the normal Heineken bottle.

James Crampton, Director for Heineken UK, reveals why Heineken is buying its place in pop culture:

Coronation Street and Emmerdale are British institutions, and both shows have huge influence and cultural currency,” said James Crampton, Director for Heineken UK.

We’re very confident that this partnership is going to have a massive impact…” says Crampton about the partnership.

James Crampton, Director, Heineken UK

Heineken’s strategy is to exploit the cultural influence and attention to drive brand awareness and consumption.

Considering how Heineken has previously used their 0.0 product to permeate society and try to normalize alcohol use in places where alcohol was previously not acceptable, the alcohol giant will use the influence from the two TV shows to market their overall brand to drive more consumption of Heineken and maximize profits.

South Korean alcohol products in Japan

Korean pop culture is spreading across the world with the increasing popularity gained by Kpop idol groups, most recently the boy band BTS and Korean TV shows such as Squid Game and Korean films. Korean pop culture is driving a renewed marketing push into nearby Japan. Big Alcohol has been quick to cash in on this trend.

Hite Jinro is South Korea’s leading beverage producer and the world’s largest soju maker. Soju is a South Korean liquor distilled from rice. Hite Jinro now plans to launch new alcohol products in Japan targeting the younger demographic. Its exports of Soju have already shot up 27.2% last year to 28.5 billion Won ($23m). 

Soju has increased in popularity in Japan due to Korean films and TV shows extensively depicting the consumption of this product.

With the rising popularity of Kpop and Kdrama soju has become almost synonymous with Korean culture through the extensive marketing of the product. This has influenced Japanese young people who embrace Korean pop culture to want to use soju.

Hite Jinro is eyeing to grab a bigger market share of Japan’s $35bn alcohol market.

We aim to lead the trend of the Japanese liquor market with various marketing activities and increased sales power,” said Hwang Jung-ho, head of Hite Jinro’s overseas business operations, as per Financial Times.

Hwang Jung-ho, head of Hite Jinro’s overseas business operations

The liquor giant has already run several advertisement campaigns in Japan to push its alcohol products. For example, a Japanese advertisement that parodied Korean romance dramas went viral reaching 3.5 million views since December. Soon after, in April 2022, Hite Jinro released its advertising campaign for its new sparkling soju with fruit flavors.

South Korean companies are pushing into Japan more and expect bilateral relationships with Japan to improve. South Korea’s president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who will take office on May 10, 2022, has expressed interest in improving bilateral relationships and is sending a delegation to Tokyo. For Hite Jinro and other South Korean alcohol companies, this means a new market to drive higher consumption of alcohol and gain more profits exploiting Korean culture to create relevance in Japan.

Within South Korea, popular culture has long been used to promote alcohol products. Movendi International has previously exposed how Big Alcohol exploits Korean pop culture to drive higher sales and more profit at the cost of the health and well-being of people. The most recent marketing ploy of Big Alcohol is the Chivas Regal marketing campaign featuring Kpop star Lisa from the girl group Blackpink. It seems now Korean alcohol companies have started using the same strategy in other countries.


Wikipedia: “Popular culture

Metro: “Heineken alcohol-free beer to be sold in Coronation Street and Emmerdale pubs

Financial Times: “‘Squid Game’ and K-pop fuel South Korean marketing push in Japan