‘Pretty in Pink’ and ‘Girl Power’: An analysis of the targeting and representation of women in alcohol brand marketing on Facebook and Instagram
Alcohol marketing helps shape how gender roles and relations are understood, and the gendered nature of alcohol use learned. In recent years, changes in how women are presented and addressed in marketing, including alcohol marketing, have been observed. This reflects the shifting social, political and regulatory context, in which increased attention has been given to gender inequality and the damaging impact of gender stereotypes. Research is yet to explore the gendered nature of alcohol marketing within this contemporary context.
A quantitative content and qualitative thematic analysis of alcohol marketing posts (N = 2600) by 20 alcohol brands on Facebook and Instagram pages over an 18 month period (January 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020) was conducted. Marketing strategies were identified, and the way in which posts targeted, represented and engaged women analysed.
New (e.g. ‘influencer’ collaborations) and established (e.g. competitions) strategies were being used to target both women and men.
Alcohol use was presented as a feminine practice and as an important component of ‘doing’ a combination of traditional, post-feminist and feminist femininities. Women were assigned a range of gender roles that acknowledged their individual pleasures and achievements, and traditional gender roles and stereotypes were both reinforced and rejected to promote alcohol use.
An important move away from sexualising and demeaning women to the appropriation of feminist and equality messages was observed, which may appeal to a wider range of women, including those embracing feminist identities.
Alcohol brand marketing encourages alcohol use to women through both perpetuating and challenging gender stereotypes.
Claims by brands of a commitment to equality are at odds with the harms related to alcohol consumption that contribute to the widening of health and social inequalities.
It is important that future work on women’s alcohol use and alcohol marketing is situated within the shifting social-political climate in which traditional, post-feminist and new fourth wave feminist rhetoric and femininities co-exist.
This is the first study to explore the extent and nature of gendered alcohol marketing on Facebook and Instagram, and how brands target, represent and engage women in the context of contemporary feminism.
Similar strategies were used to target women and men, yet the nature of content was highly gendered.
- Focussing on the nature of content related to women, brands were found to reflect and reproduce important aspects of feminine identities and women’s day to day lives, to promote alcohol use and encourage consumers to interact and co-create content.
- Combined with a range of established (e.g. competitions) and newer strategies (e.g. ‘influencer’ collaborations), this meant that brand posts reached a high number of consumers with meaningful messaging.
Both continuation and change in how women are targeted and represented in alcohol marketing was found, with the co-existence of traditional, postfeminist and newer ‘feminist’ femininities, and evidence of more interactional representations, which are likely to appeal to a wide range of consumers.
Alcohol use was framed as a key component of the various social roles women occupy in contemporary society, and associated with all aspects of their everyday lives.
- They were depicted consuming alcohol with and alongside men, including in public spaces, implying that women’s visibility in once male dominated spaces provides evidence of gender equality.
- In contrast to depictions of men, the importance of all female friendship was drawn upon in post-feminist and feminist ways (e.g. prioritising friends over romantic relationships, sisterhood), to present alcohol use as an essential and normalised component of women’s everyday socialising, and alcohol use as a form of female bonding.
- This reflects and appeals to women’s lived realities, given that the ‘girls nights out’, ‘nights ‘in’ and ‘pre-drinking’ provide opportunities for women to collectively engage in feminine practices with the aim of constructing ‘girly’ identities, which are important for women’s shared pleasure and bonding.
Constructions of female friendship reflected post-feminist notion of ‘girl power’ and ‘girl culture’, a marketing strategy that has been used since the 1990s to denote female empowerment through female friendship, ‘girly’ femininity and consumption-based practices. It both reflects and reproduces the importance of friendship to women, and helps promote group alcohol use with female friends as an empowering act, while structural inequalities are concealed, rather than overcome.
- Linked to the prioritising of female friendship, a pro-singleton rhetoric underpinned by notions of independence, mocked the un-aspirational post-feminist stereotype of the drinking spinster as a source of pity.
- This suggests that narratives of singlehood have shifted alongside contemporary feminisms, where being alone is no longer represented as a source of shame, but celebration, and a form of independence that should be embraced individually and collectively through alcohol use (Gill, 2016; McRobbie, 2009).
- Whilst the depictions of female friendship and singlehood discussed may contain feminist undertones by suggesting women prioritise female friends over romantic relationships, and embrace the importance of women’s collective experiences, they did so to promote alcohol use and initiate consumer engagement with marketing content (i.e. ‘tag your besties’).
Alcohol use was also presented as an opportunity for women to reward themselves for the day-to-day activities involved in their public and private roles. Framing these as individual achievements, alcohol use was depicted as well-deserved time out from women’s busy and at times mundane everyday lives and identities. In turn, messages of empowerment underpinned brand promotion, by presenting alcohol use as an opportunity to escape the pressures involved in negotiating the plurality of traditional (i.e. motherhood) and post-feminist and feminist (i.e. workers, friend, consumer) identities.
- Neo-liberal discourses of self-care, which form part of both post-feminist and fourth wave feminist rhetoric, further instructed women to reward themselves to time out and relaxation through alcohol use.
- This reflects a recent popularisation of self-resilience as an individualised and feminised approach to mental health and well-being, which is underpinned by the assumption of empowerment through self-focus, a positive mind-set and consumption.
- As a result, alcohol use was encouraged as a feminine way of dealing with stress, which is problematic when the link between alcohol use and mental health is considered.
There were many examples of marketing that whilst reproducing traditional forms of femininity, resonated with post-feminist and new fourth wave feminist identities.
- For example, brands drew on the cultural association of pink with femininity. The overuse of this aesthetic may appear to reproduce a narrow and harmful classification of femininity that reinforces difference between women and men and reduces women to appearance, girlhood and innocence.
- Indeed, it is likely that such products are rejected by some women on these grounds.
- Yet these associations hold wider appeal when they are placed within a post-feminist context in which there has been a resurgence in the popularity of pink and girly aesthetics amongst (young) adult women, who have reclaimed it as an expression of empowerment and celebration of womanhood.
- More recently, and as a result of fourth wave feminism being born out of post-feminism, the colour pink has taken on feminist undertones.
- This reflects attempts to address the dissonance between feminism and femininity (e.g. through the reclaiming of pink) that has led to them no longer being regarded as mutually exclusive concepts. As such, pink products hold significance to the performance of a variety of femininities, including those that are feminist, and in turn promotes the consumption of alcohol to a larger range of women than it may initially seem.
Similarly, an appearance-based femininity was depicted as the norm, in ways that appeared to reproduce traditional and potentially harmful feminine traits and stereotypes. Whilst the enjoyment and sense of empowerment women may gain from appearance-based activities and identities should not be overlooked, such examples perpetuated the importance of appearance to how women are valued in society to promote alcohol use. However, in a post-feminist and fourth wave feminist context, in which a celebration all things girly and traditionally feminine – makeup, painted nails, shoes, clothes, accessories, shopping – are embraced, such depictions are less likely to be interpreted by women as negative stereotypes, and as such hold wider appeal.
- The result is both the promotion of alcohol to women, and the dominance of a limited version of normative femininity; one that reproduces and conforms to, rather than challenges, traditional gender stereotypes.
- Despite some brands drawing on women’s body image anxieties and post-feminist notions of disciplining the body to promote low calorie and light products and recipes others rejected diet culture, and instead acknowledged the normality and acceptability of being ‘imperfect’ and embracing individual flaws.
- These feminist undertones are likely to be appeal to women who reject diet culture and traditional beauty standards within their identity making.
Importantly, the research found an absence of the representation of women as sex objects, suggesting a move away from the historic use of sexist content such as the (hyper) sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies, once common in beer brand marketing to attract male consumers.
- As such, marketing posts were considered not to be in breach of regulatory codes aimed at preventing the use of negative gender stereotypes and causing offence on the grounds of gender.
- The economic reasons for a move away from this type marketing are clear. Advertisers now see ‘the commercial advantages of rejecting gender stereotypes’.
- Whilst these changes to both self-regulatory and brand’s in-house policies (e.g. Diageo’s (2020) gender stereotype training) are a positive development for gender equality, they are underpinned by concerns over the economic impact of alienating female consumers; concerns that are reflected in research confirming that women dislike the use of sexual images of women to a greater extent than men.
- Whilst this is a positive development, other media sources such as music videos, which are unregulated, continue to sexually objectify women in relation to alcohol.
- Moreover, with the intensification of engagement marketing that encourages users to interact with brand content, users themselves may respond to marketing posts depicting women in ways that sexualise and objectify, and research conducted in Australia has found evidence of this.
The study analysis highlights how brands have moved away from sexualising women to messages of empowerment to promote alcohol use to women.
- For example, women’s individual achievements and female friendship (or ‘sisterhood’) were championed and celebrated.
- Alcohol use was also presented as a means of escaping traditional gender roles (e.g. motherhood) and engaging in activities once deemed by society as masculine (e.g. alcohol use itself, sports, brewing).
- Much of this rhetoric is not divorced from post-feminist sentiments that assumes gender equality, such as the notion of empowerment through consumption, ‘girl power’, the celebration of stereotypical femininity, independence and embodied self-expression.
- Moreover, despite the backing of such causes, all the brands failed to use the words ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’, suggesting the post-feminist tendency to draw on feminist thinking but failing to refer to it, perhaps to negate any negative connotations that continue to be applied to feminism and as such preventing alienating consumers who do not identify as such.
- There are examples of brands moving beyond simple messages of empowerment to promote gender and sexual equality (i.e. Smirnoff’s Equalizer, Absolut Sex Responsibly) and raise awareness of the broader inequalities women experience.
- Nonetheless, as examples of ‘commodity’ feminism and activism such campaigns failed to acknowledge the underlying structural causes of inequality. Instead, individual consumer actions were presented as a solution, which allowed brands to promote alcohol use whilst advancing brand image by presenting them as ethical and morally aware organisations.
Alcohol brand marketing presents women’s alcohol use as a feminine practice and as an important component of ‘doing’ a combination of traditional, post-feminist and feminist femininities.
Predominantly younger women were presented and targeted, and although the women portrayed in images tended to be white, many did depict a more intersectional perspective with women of colour being included and addressed.
Women were assigned a range of gender roles that acknowledged their individual pleasures and achievements, and traditional gender roles were both reinforced and rejected to promote alcohol use.
Alcohol consumption was presented as an important aspect of ‘having it all’; including slimness, grooming, fashionable clothing and accessories, meaningful friendships and the successful management of women’s multiple social roles (i.e. friend, mother, worker). Through a lens that fails to consider post-feminist and fourth wave feminist rhetoric, it may be assumed some of the femininities presented would be rejected by women as negative stereotypes. However, in a post-feminist and fourth wave feminist context, aspects of traditional femininity such as pink and makeup have been reclaimed as a celebration of womanhood. As such, brands are able to appeal to a wider cohort of women, including younger females who are embracing new feminist identities. It is important that women’s alcohol use and alcohol marketing are explored within this shifting social-political climate in which post-feminist and new fourth wave feminist rhetoric co-exist.
Importantly the researchers found a move away from sexualising and demeaning women, to the appropriation of feminist and equality messages. This may provide an opportunity to spread important messages for social change and inclusivity, and engage with people who may otherwise reject feminism. However, the study findings provide further evidence of the commodification of feminism, which dilutes progressive messages, oversimplifies marketing straplines, and fails to disrupt structural inequalities that disadvantage women and other minority groups.
‘Instead, this appropriation of empowerment and equality is used by corporations to increase profit, through broadening their appeal to (young) women and men who may identity as femininst and be social justice aware. When considering the messages of empowerment used to promote products to women and other minority groups (i.e. LGBTQ+ people), it is crucial to highlight that alcohol is ‘no ordinary commodity’. It is directly linked to many illnesses that affect women, including breast cancer, and alcohol related harms are higher amongst minority groups such as the LGBTQ+ community. As such, the messages of equality used to promote alcohol products are at odds with the harms caused by alcohol to women and minority groups.