Branding, Alcohol and Adolescence by Head of School Bob Henderson
It is astonishing to me how utterly pervasive the effective branding of alcoholic beverages is among any group of American adolescents. Sitting in a recent seminar on chemical dependency among teenagers, I found myself reflecting on this reality and the danger it presents to our students. Let me share an example and some reflections on this topic, especially as students head off on spring break and then return for the final quarter at school with its enhanced social opportunities.
Back in mid-February, Class I student John Beadle made a delightful announcement in assembly in support of the student-directed plays, which were scheduled to open that week. John is a master of these presentations, combining humor and cheerleading to draw students out in support of each other’s activities. In the fall, he generated immense excitement for Milton weekend (while garnering some laughs at the expense of the Head of School and his foibles on skis!).
In this case, he sought to stimulate attention and support for five Class I peers who had worked very hard to stage these plays. He poked good-natured fun at all of them (Maddie Cella, Jack Radley, Kirsten Mulrenan, Lucas O’Brien and Chris Conway) while also emphasizing the hard work they had invested and the excellent entertainment promised by the shows. It was a fantastic announcement, sending everyone out of assembly smiling and feeling great about the Nobles theatre program. However, I make note of this winter assembly highlight not just because of John’s skillful public presence; rather, I was struck by the implications of one of his amusing references.
John caricatured each of the student directors using popular culture icons. The
final play he introduced was that of Chris Conway. He flashed a picture up on the
Lawrence Auditorium screen of Chris in the pose and demeanor of, as John described it,
“the most interesting man in the world.” In case you do not watch much television, this
was a reference to the long-running advertising campaign of Dos Equis beer. If
perchance you haven’t seen them, this entire collection of very funny ads is readily
available on YouTube.
Chris Conway was portrayed as suave, macho, unflappable, uber-competent and fearless, parallel to the character in the ads, “the most interesting man in world.” The students in assembly that morning, and especially Chris’ peers, howled with laughter. This was not at Chris’ expense; instead, they immediately grasped the reference and roared in affirmative and affectionate recognition. I laughed too, because it was clever and very funny, but afterward I stopped to reflect a bit on what had just happened.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the 600 students in that audience could
immediately identify the tagline of an advertising campaign for an alcoholic beverage.
The qualities of “the most interesting man in world” are indelibly impressed on all these
adolescents and associated with a beer.
Most advertising for alcoholic beverages on television, or on the Internet, is neither
directed at me, nor, frankly, is it directed at most adults. It is directed at adolescents. Just
thinking about the beer advertisements that permeated the Super Bowl last month, I was
struck by the fact that Budweiser associated its product with affection between a puppy
and a Clydesdale horse. Bud Light was presented with bright blue labels, which were raised
joyously in celebration at a concert.
Watch television advertising for the full range of alcoholic beverages, and I think you would be hard pressed not to conclude that it is almost all directed at young people. My favorite in this respect is Captain Morgan Rum, which is tied with the playful anarchy of being a pirate in the early 18th Caribbean!
Ostensibly, this marketing is directed at people of legal drinking age. The
emotional branding, however, is consciously directed at the impressionable. And it
works, or it would not continue so relentlessly.
Let me be clear that I am not a prude about these things, and my purpose is not to
tilt at windmills by calling for a ban on advertising for alcoholic beverages. Nor do I sell
our students short on discerning sophistication.
Yet I worry that all of them so easily and readily connect alcoholic beverages with qualities presented in advertising that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual product being sold. Alcohol is a powerful drug that happens to be legal (for adults) and pervasive in our culture. It needs to be discussed that way with kids. This should not be done as a scare tactic, but rather to provide accurate information in regard to the risks and realities of alcohol consumption.
This includes drinking and driving, alcoholism, abusive consumption and alcohol-related
health risks, but also just the basic process of deciding whether or not to drink at all, and
under what circumstances. Students will hear some of this at school, but they need to
hear it from parents, in the context of your family values.
The pressures of the general culture should not go unanswered by parents; you do not want producers and advertisers to be the primary purveyors of the information and ethos around drinking. Take responsibility to communicate clearly and openly with your children about alcohol. Strive to ensure they understand that branding is designed to mislead and associate a powerful and dangerous product with emotions and qualities that in most respects are lies.