In the wake of public backlash, major retailers—including Target and Amazon—are getting rid of their gender-coded, pink and blue toy aisles and sections, opting instead for a gender-neutral approach. Yet some product categories remain heavily gendered—particularly alcohol.
“When it comes to those products—especially tobacco, sports cars, alcohol—it tends to be the same male gaze, misogynistic messages that we’ve seen since the 1940s,” says Colin Babiuk, an instructor in Grant MacEwan’s public relations diploma program. Peruse some of those old-timey, early 20th-century print ads, he explains, and you’ll find that the alcohol ads mainly targeted men and centred around a “king of the castle” approach.
“Print advertising in the 1940s was really based around the 1940s values, so the man was the king of the house,” Babiuk says. “The wife was there to cook and clean, and you know, be a good little wife and bring me my beer, please.”
Browse through the shelves of any liquor store nowadays and you won’t find those sorts of images and messages anymore (thank you, sexual revolution), but the sexist pandering is certainly still here—it just shifted.
Consider the slew of female-targeted alcohol labels on the market today: Bad Girl sparkling wine, Mommy’s Time Out Delicious Red wine, Girls’ Night Out wine coolers, Skinny Girl vodka. These products are not only targeted specifically towards a female audience, they also use a diminutive address—”girl” and “mommy.” Male analogues, when they do exist—and there are significantly fewer examples—tend to use signifiers of men in authority roles: Grandfather port, Southern Gentlemen whisky, Dad’s Little Helper ale.
Why do these blatantly gendered and sexist bottles exist—is it really just because they sell?
“If consumers have this idea that [companies are] using gendered advertising or these things are gendered in order to get me, as a guy or as a girl, to buy something, they generally respond negatively to that,” explains Sarah Moore, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Alberta. “But, if they look at it as kind of a positive way to help navigate the marketplace, like: ‘I have a no idea what wine to buy … I’m trying to buy something for my all-girls book club and oh, look, here’s a wine that is very clearly for girls—great. It’s called Girls’ Night Out or whatever it happens to be: you made my decision easy; I’m OK with you identifying me and labelling me as a girl; I’m going to do the same thing and I’m going to choose that product.’ So it kind of depends on the context in which consumers are making that choice, I think, how they would respond to the marketer’s use of those identifiers in such a blatant way.”
When it comes to how marketers develop methods of selling products, Moore explains that while large firms certainly have access to demographic information about the marketplace that would ostensibly steer them towards decisions based on actual audiences, the marketer’s own biases also come into play.
“If marketers have these kind of unconscious assumptions—that presumably they have because we live in this society where these are prevalent—they engage in certain behaviours that cons us to choose or not choose certain products that we do because we don’t want other people to judge us,” Moore says. “You can imagine that you could do a really great job of selling alcohol in a non-gendered way. You would just have to find some other identity or some other branding thing to tie it to, and it wouldn’t be that hard. There are some wines that do a great job of it. … So maybe gender is just the easy route.”
It’s not just specific products that are being gendered, either—certain drinks and even entire categories of liquor have been coded as either male or female. Consider the so-called “girly” cocktails—daiquiris, cosmopolitans, anything sweet and/or garnished with fruit—and “feminine” types of wine—moscato, rosé, sparkling wine and even the entire category of white wine. These drinks have become so associated with women that many men will shy away from ordering them at a bar or restaurant, despite their personal preferences, and feel compelled to choose something “manly”—a whisky-based cocktail, a peaty scotch, a tannic red wine. When someone breaks these gendered drink lines—a man ordering a cosmopolitan, a woman ordering scotch—eyebrows are often raised; sometimes there’s even outright judgment passed.
“I feel like you get some sort of kudos from the men and you get eyebrows raised from the women,” says Hayley McRae, an account executive for Vendemmia International Wines, an import agency specializing in Italian varieties. “Some sort of pat on the back from a guy, like: ‘That’s great! That’s great you’re embracing a manly beverage. I’m glad that you’re not afraid of some hair on your chest.'”
Her portfolio doesn’t include any of the blatantly gendered brands (much to her relief), though McRae has experienced the impacts this has had, on the public as a whole and to herself as a woman in the wine industry.
“Some guy comes in looking for whisky, and they don’t usually accept your advice,” she says, recalling when she used to work in a retail wine store. “Or you get that they’re leery that you’re offering them any [advice]—how could you possibly be? That kind of thing.”
McRae has had customers admit that they are too embarrassed to order certain things, purely because of that drink’s perceived image.
“There’s lots of guys that feel weird because they like moscato, or something a little sweeter, and they feel embarrassed ordering it,” she says. “I’ve had conversations with men where they’re like, ‘I’m really embarrassed that I like Riesling.’ But what the fuck’s wrong with that? Riesling’s delicious! You shouldn’t feel ashamed. When somebody out there has put into people’s heads that if you’re a man you should drink more tannic things or more hoppy beers or … with whisky, how peaty can you drink it? At some point you’re just drinking a dare.”
Companies may defend their choice of using gendered marketing strategies by arguing that they are targeting a niche market. But that doesn’t absolve them of the problems these strategies cause, nor does it explain why we’ve decided, en masse, that entire categories of liquor are relegated to one gender exclusively.
“Even though I think there’s more awareness of these things now—like especially with the toy gendered marketing—I think on average it’s still an acceptable strategy,” Moore says. “Given that it hasn’t changed, you could infer that perhaps more of that, then, is coming from marketer stereotypes than from actual market data. Because I imagine that that has changed: the percentage of women buying and the type of woman buying is maybe more varied than it used to be, and if they’re not adapting, then maybe they’re just stuck in their old-boy’s stereotype.”
Beer is arguably the biggest domain of that old-boy’s mentality. Beer has long been considered an almost exclusively male beverage, based on the vast majority of ads; the few beers that have been targeted specifically towards women are almost invariably sweet and fruity. This may start changing sooner rather than later, however, given recent events: in November, Bloomberg Business reported that several large beer companies, including Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (AB InBev) and MillerCoors, are trying to attract a bigger female customer base by making beer more “gender friendly.” This came in direct response to #UpForWhatever, a recent marketing campaign by Bud Light (one of AB InBev’s brands) that described the beer as perfect “for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” The campaign was widely blasted by critics for being incredibly tone deaf to issues of sexual assault, especially among college-aged adults who comprise a major demographic of the beer industry.
Using blatant gender stereotyping is outmoded and, as Bud Light’s #UpForWhatever campaign demonstrates, frequently offensive. It also completely excludes anyone not belonging to the traditional male/female dichotomy of gender identity—just one more strike against its widespread use. It’s time to abolish these outliers of marketing for the vestigial sexism they are.
“In the end, why does gender matter when we’re talking about a beverage?” McRae asks. “We don’t do this with fruits and vegetables. … Why should it matter if you enjoy sweet or peaty or hoppy? It shouldn’t matter. Gender has nothing to do with it.”