Drunken Youth

By Ray Schultz

Oh, our poor young people. Parents who worry about them often ask if liquor advertisers target youth.

Of course they do, you fools. Where else are they going to get new customers? The Boomers may drink more as they sink into dementia, but there’s a certain churn.

Rolling Stone magazine put it best in an ad in the Liquor Handbook some 30 years ago:

“Meet over 2 ½ million young adults who read Rolling Stone…They’re affluent, they’re thirsty, they’re deciding right now what they’ll be drinking for the next 20 years. Who needs ‘em?? You do: they’re your future.”

By the way, this was around the time the magazine ran a lurid article on teenage alcoholism. Talk about having it both ways.

Has anything changed?

When Prohibition was repealed in 1932, alcohol was less of a problem for both young and old. Fewer than a third of the American people drank at all and statistics on the damage from steady boozing were only a fraction of what they later became (perhaps because there was less research being done).

This changed in the 1950’s, when now-prosperous ex-G.I..’s created the home entertainment revolution. Booze was now more acceptable in the home, and millions of people set up bars in their houses to serve it.

Alcohol was also seen as more chic. And why wouldn’t it be? Liquor flowed once every eight minutes on television, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Then as now, the most common kind of liquor advertising showed sexy young people enjoying a drink. They could have been playing with toy boats, as in a Smirnoff’s ad, or sitting around a fireplace. The message was that a person who drank the beverage being advertised would enjoy wealth, sex and social status like the people in the ad.

Which was pure rot. A person who made a career out of swilling what the people in the ad were drinking would not only get further away from wealth, sex and social status, but could end up with no wife, no house, no worldly possessions whatsoever.

Naturally, liquor companies soft-peddled that sad fact. But they hinted at it in occasional ads that seemed to appeal directly to alcoholism. For example, Smirnoff’s showed a bottle of vodka lying smashed on the ground, with a caption reading, “Did you ever see a grown man cry?”

That wasn’t the worst of it. As we now know, liquor advertising was (and still is) full of subliminal messages, which the industry pretended to only dimly understand. One person who understood them was Professor Wilson Byron Key, a former advertising executive, who wrote the book Subliminal Seduction.

In Senate hearings, Key showed slides of several full-color ads in national magazines. To the astonishment of the Senatorial audience, he pointed out various nightmare images such as death’s heads and devils masks, plus assorted sexual imagery, and the letters S-E-X, all superimposed on the ice cubes in the glasses.

If the reader looked carefully enough at the ice cubes floating in almost any liquor ad, he, too, would see macabre and sexually provocative images winking at him. “The subliminal content appears to be about two things—sex and death,” Professor Key said. He then explained that most people will never even realize that they are seeing such a thing, but that it will register in their subconscious, so that at a later time, when they are shopping in a liquor store, they will find themselves looking for a certain brand without knowing why. “These are subliminal stimuli, not perceived at any conscious level,” he added. “They are perceived at the unconscious level.”

The liquor industry claimed that these masterpieces of hallucinogenic art were just that—hallucinations. “They’re ordinary ice cubes,” one ad writer said. But Key debunked that. “If you have ever been around commercial photography, you would know that this is an impossibility. You can’t photograph ice. The stuff melts under hot lights.” As far as the professor was concerned, these images were most skillfully air-brushed in.

Granted, these ads weren’t all directed at the young. But many new products were. For example, vintners learned that young people were drinking wine to supplement their marijuana. In response, Ernest and Julio Gallo, introduced pop wines like Ripple and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, and the Heublein Corporation brought out Annie Green Springs wine. When wine faded, and the love generation turned to harder booze, the wineries switched their focus to the teenage audience. Heublein introduced Hereford Cows, an alcoholic milkshake available in flavors like chocolate, strawberry and banana.

Think about that the next time you want to criticize Millennials for their drinking habits.

What’s more, people barely old enough to drink and vote were not the only prime market. The Gallos created a libation called Thunderbird after reading marketing reports that said black consumers were fond of mixing white port wine with lemon juice. Thunderbird sold 2.5 million cases during its first year. It’s not clear who bought them, but the product later became a staple on interracial skid rows across the country.

Is it true that the industry had nobody in mind for these ads and products? If you believe that, you shouldn’t work in marketing.

“An industry that spends over $500 million a year on advertising certainly has a good idea of who buys its products and why,” said Dr. Eugene Noble, director of the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, back in those halcyon days.

It still does.

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