Please drink responsibly. We’ve all seen it on ads for beer, wine and liquor, but what does it mean, exactly? Usually, the commercial goes something like this: Plenty of young, beautiful people partying, having the time of their lives … then cut to the end (or to the tiny type at the bottom of a print ad) and you see the advisory to indulge “responsibly.” If this feels like an afterthought at best and hypocritical at worst, you’re not alone. The creators of the edgy cartoon series “South Park” took notice of these ads, too, and decided to take a swipe at them in a recent episode called “Freemium Isn’t Free,” which first aired in September 2014. In their usual deft way, the show’s writers managed to take on the alcohol industry and video game and alcohol addictions in the bargain. The episode skewers, too, “free-to-play” games for mobile devices — those time sucks that seem free, but can end up costing users a lot of money for all the bells and whistles needed to enjoy the full-game experience.
Without giving away the entire plot, here’s some of what happens in the episode: Recurring characters Terrance and Philip (who are also Canadian TV stars) endorse a “freemium” video game that helps the country flourish and reach the lofty status of the state of Michigan. But there are concerns that too many Canadian youths are becoming addicted to the game, so it’s decided that some of the billions being made from this “free” game should be used for a campaign that encourages those now addicted to the game to play “in moderation.”
“Do you really think that would help?” a concerned Philip asks. “Of course,” he’s told by a Canadian suit. “The alcohol industry does it all the time.” The episode then launches into a live-action parody of drinking ads that drives home the inherent hypocrisy of this entire category of advertising. It’s a quick-cut montage of handsome guys, hot women, fast cars and silver and gold alcohol free-flowing in slow motion. “You …friends …fun …drink…hot girls…expensive cars…drink!” the voice-over intones. The parody builds to a crescendo of “Drink! Drink! Drink!” as manly men in tuxedos and stunning women in glittery gowns slug Champagne, beer and cocktails before fading to black. Inevitably, the words “Drink Responsibly” appear on the screen.
The parody isn’t subtle, but neither are the real-world alcohol ads that profess to encourage moderate imbibing while not bothering to define what that might be. One study indicates that such vague, unhelpful messaging appears to be the norm in the alcohol industry. The research, led by Katherine Clegg Smith, PhD, an associate professor in the department of health, behavior and society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, examined alcohol advertisements in U.S. magazines between 2008 and 2010. Published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the research found that 87% of alcohol advertisements promoting “drink responsibly” messaging didn’t define what responsible drinking was. Nor did the ads advise abstaining from alcohol in particular circumstances, such as pregnancy. And when so-called “responsibility messaging” did accompany an alcoholic product’s slogan or tagline, in 95% of the ads it appeared in a much smaller font than did the text promoting the liquor.
Currently, no federal regulations require any type of “drink responsibly” advisory in alcoholic beverage advertisements; whatever is included is at the discretion of the advertiser and done voluntarily. Commenting in a news release about her study, Dr. Clegg Smith said, “We found that the vast majority of responsibility messages were used to convey promotional information, such as appealing product qualities or how the product should be consumed.” In fact, many of the ads’ moderation messaging directly contradicted what was visually depicted. For example, one vodka advertisement that portrayed a drinker who’d been on an all-night bender suggested in tiny lettering that the alcohol be enjoyed “responsibly.”