I Quit Drinking. Suddenly, Alcohol Was Everywhere.

From marketing phrase to actual wine.

When I woke up this morning, rolled over, and checked Twitter to see what fresh hell the previous night had wrought, I was greeted with an ad for White Claw, the malt liquor marketed to white millennials as a “sparkling” alternative to beer.

When I scrolled through the morning’s headlines, a few minutes later, I saw that the New York Times had posted a story headlined “A Vodka for Our Times,” about a new spirit with the on-the-nose name Quarantine Vodka. (Tagline: “A premium spirit that accentuates the precious times we share with others.”)

In my email, there are no fewer than five solicitations for wine-related products or “experiences” marketed to women, including new canned wines to take to my socially-distanced picnic in the park, a list of “self-care essentials” that included a three-pack of wine, and a Groupon offer that will teach me to host my own online wine class.

And even while I was writing this, another ad, this one telling me I needed to drink up for the children. “It’s time to sip for your state. Every glass you order or bottle you pick up helps your local wineries, families, and farmers,” the ad for Washington Wines admonished.

I quit drinking in 2015. Since then, I’ve been more aware of alcohol than ever before, and the relentlessness with which it’s marketed to me and every other American consumer.

In a magazine, a recipe for a watermelon punch with Patrón tequila that will really make my next backyard barbecue.

At the grocery store, a giant display for the latest summer beer abomination: Bud Lite Lime, now reimagined as the barely pronounceable “Lime Strawberry-Rita.”

On a billboard, an encouragement: I, a woman who needs to keep her body in swimsuit shape, can have it all — get wasted and stay skinny — by drinking the latest low-carb fizzy concoction, whose alcohol-by-volume is helpfully noted right on the label.

Of course, alcohol isn’t just marketed to women. It’s practically poured down men’s throats, too, by way of ads that insist that real men have a bottle or tumbler of brown liquid perpetually dangling from their hand.

And it’s now being marketed for a post-millennial era, when the end to reductive gender labels apparently calls for a new kind of good-time poison. White Claw, for example, has distinguished itself by using what the Washington Post called “post-gender” marketing, targeting ads at young people who just want to “hang” in mixed-gender groups sipping something light and fizzy all day.

Marketing responds to markets. But markets are also created by marketing, in ways we consumers don’t often like to admit. It’s easy to laugh, in 2020, about people who drank the fizzy malt beverage Zima in the ’90s, and harder to remember how heavily Zima was marketed to young people as a lighter, sparklier alternative to beer — literally, clear beer. (It died because even the best marketing campaign can’t cover for a drink that tasted like someone dropped a nine-volt battery into a weak gin and tonic).

Similarly, people mocked rosé relentlessly, well into the 2000s, as wine for girls. (The worst thing you can be, according to ads aimed at men). Today, it’s the pre-5:00 drink of choice for sophisticated boss bitches everywhere, thanks to aggressive marketing from wine companies and the ubiquitous catchphrase “rosé all day,” which suggests a drink so harmless, you could have it with breakfast.

We like to think we choose our choices — that the width of our pants hems, whether we wear or eschew makeup, our sudden preference and equally sudden distaste for something called “millennial pink” is self-determined. But of course those preferences aren’t created in a vacuum, and neither are our choices about what, and whether, to drink. Think you love drinking frosé and hate resinous apéritifs? Just wait a few years.

One thing that hasn’t changed: The social opprobrium attached to being a person who doesn’t drink. Because the beverage industry hasn’t figured out a way to monetize my preferences, I often feel stigmatized at bars, parties, and events, where “do you have any non-alcoholic options?” marks me as a no-fun cheapskate who doesn’t really want to be there. After all, if I’m an adult at an adult gathering, why don’t I want an “adult beverage” — a phrase that is, itself, a genius bit of marketing?

The answer, always, is capitalism. Yesterday’s hard lemonade is today’s alcoholic seltzer is tomorrow’s, I don’t know, alcoholic smoothie. But no one has figured out a way to market mocktails in a mass way, or tried. The reason not drinking is “abnormal” isn’t that alcohol makes a person happier, or healthier, or more successful. It’s that drinking is normalized by the companies that want you to purchase their products. In capitalism, the biggest pariah is the person who can’t be targeted.

Read an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, and preorder your copy here.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Erica C. Barnett

Erica C. Barnett is a veteran print and online journalist in Seattle. Her book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, is out on July 7, 2020.