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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

A Century of Sexist Alcohol Ads

Looking back on a hundred years of alcohol industry sales tactics, the sexism is all-too blatant—with ads often depicting women as objects to be consumed, rather than consumers. What’s worse, there's little evidence that much is changing.

14 Substance

If you’re a woman who drinks, you’re probably a hussie, a witch, or dressing and acting “like a man,” at least if the last hundred years of alcohol advertisements are to be believed. Looking back on a century of images, it’s apparent that alcohol is marketed to men far more than women, with ads often depicting women as objects rather than consumers. And there’s little evidence that much has changed.

Some of the earliest ads for beer and liquor, from the first few decades of the century, mostly featured—unsurprisingly—white, affluent men in the prime of life, typically seen fishing, lounging on golf courses, hiking or playing polo. Any women on show are either utilitarian or decorative. They serve the alcohol—either as servants or doting housewives—or else populate the background. Some just stand near some alcohol, fanning themselves.

In the beginning of the 20th Century, most alcohol ads were minimalist and abstract. Through the 1910s and ‘20s, flirty, female vignettes were a common theme. Like this topless character, bursting triumphantly from a cluster of grapes.

In keeping with human/plant hybrid theme, this buxom barmaid seems to have barley sprouting from her shoulder.

By the ‘30s and ‘40s, women were becoming more visible in ads for booze–but were almost never depicted actually drinking it. Instead, they were often pictured alongside their husbands or boyfriends, at restaurants or entertaining in the home. “You’d be surprised how many of my guests select wine,” declares a smiling homemaker in this 1939 ad for white wine.

Many ads throughout the 20th century promised that alcohol would help you live your life to the fullest—to take risks, to be adventurous, athletic and bold. But few ads showed women playing sports or being active. Those that did tended to depict them as wearing masculine clothing, but looking playful and flirty. These women are just playing a role, is the implication—basically dressing and acting in drag.

Difficult questions about women and booze have long plagued the advertising industry, according to Jean Kilbourne, academic and author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes The Way We Think and Feel. She has devoted much of her career to issues of gender in advertising, with focus on how the tobacco and alcohol industry can promote addiction.

“The culture thinks that drinking a lot is manly,” Kilbourne tells us. “But drinking a lot for a woman is seen as a negative thing, particularly seen as making a woman less feminine.” So advertisers must walk a fine line: “They can imply that drinking will give a woman some of men’s power and privilege without detracting from her femininity,” writes Kilbourne in Can’t Buy My Love. “They often portray women as sexual and untamed but not too wild.”

Sex of course sells, and by the ‘50s women were routinely stripping down to their undergarments to sell booze. The domestic wives and athletic tomboys of the ‘30s and ‘40s were replaced by scantily clad vixens, often open-mouthed, draped around bottles and glasses, or leaning down to serve alcohol to men. Though women increasingly appear in ads, the alcohol was still being marketed overwhelmingly to men.

In this 1954 ad for Martini & Rossi, a woman fills her male friends’ glasses. She doesn’t have her own glass…but her mouth is open anyway. She is not consuming, but rather being consumed.

This has been a theme in alcohol advertising for decades, as Kilbourne points out: “The emphasis on girls and women is always on being desirable, not experiencing desire.”

In one of the earliest ad campaigns that showed women actually drinking, this 1950s effort from Budweiser, a man pours beer into a glass while his female companion playfully—but delicately—takes a tiny sip.

With the rise of women’s liberation in the 1960s, alcohol companies latched on to hawk their products, in their own inimitable way. “I never even thought of burning my bra until I discovered Smirnoff,” exclaims this bra-less bar stool occupant.

Not that all alcohol companies adopted this “feminist” slant. “I never say no to Catto,” confides a seductress in this Scotch ad.

Still, by the 1970s independent women with devilish grins and more assertive sexualities began to take center stage in many alcohol ads. The girl next door was replaced by the “Imp next door,” smiling mischievously behind her cocktail.

“Scotch and the single girl,” is the tagline of this ‘70s ad for J&B whisky, the star of which grips a pool cue with confidence.

Alcohol ads had always promised men sex. Now they were promising women sex, too. But beyond that, they were promising intimacy and companionship. “Alcohol ads encourage women to think that they’re in a relationship with alcohol,” says Kilbourne. ” For men it’s more about sex; for women it’s more about connection.” These single women apparently don’t need a man—because they have booze.

In the ‘80s, ads for other products—food, clothes, toiletries—began to show women in the throes of ecstatic consumption. Herbal Essences shampoo commercials famously featured a woman orgasming in the shower. But alcohol companies continued to depict drinking women as rule-breakers or “bad girls,” sometimes adorning them with devil’s horns or a witch’s hat, like in this 1983 ad for Ronrico rum.

Loving booze, for ladies, evidently comes with a cost. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, many women in alcohol ads were shown faceless, or fragmented. Their bodies were increasingly broken down into their constituent parts—lips, hair, legs, breasts. Their bodies often appeared as vessels for alcohol, or brand billboards, such as in this 1988 ad for Budweiser.

And in this 1983 ad, a faceless model in a bathing suit rolls two giant Coors Light caps up a mountain. As you do.

Blending into bottles or resembling the product remained a common theme throughout the 20th Century. Women looked drinkable more often than they looked thirsty, like in this 1995 ad for Bailey’s.

“I’m so delicious,” the ad implies. A very similar Bailey’s ad from the ’90s shows that women of color and LGBT people—though largely excluded from alcohol ads throughout the 20th century—are subject to the same treatment.

The new century brought little respite, if the cowgirl tucked inside a martini glass in this 2004 Three Olives vodka ad is any indication. No wonder so many bars let ladies drink free—apparently they are on the menu.

By the late naughties, alcohol advertisers continue to put women in compromising positions. This 2011 ad for Skyy vodka, depicting a woman in a bikini lying on her back as a fully clothed man stands over her wielding a bottle, is arguably one of the most regressive to date. If one thing has remained constant in alcohol ads over the last hundred years, it’s the promise that booze can satisfy both your thirst and your sexual desires—just as long as you’re a heterosexual man.

But what about women’s thirst? Health surveys indicate that binge drinking rates among women have rapidly escalated in the past decade, and that the number of women visiting the ER for alcohol-related emergencies has more than doubled. And people with addiction, whatever their gender, are valuable customers for the alcohol industry. “They need addicts,” says Kilbourne. ”They need alcoholics.”

Which partly explains why, in recent years, the booze industry has begun to target the female consumer. And to do this—without threatening long-held gender stereotypes—they’ve begun creating and marketing brands specifically for women.

Apparently, that means more booze in pastel-colored bottles, with cute “girly” taglines that encourage women to be themselves. “Be” wine, for example, is “radiant,” “flirty,” and “fresh” and comes in multi-colored flourescent bottles, to suit a woman’s every mood.

For the women on the naughtier side of the (narrow) spectrum, there’s Little Black Dress (LBD) Vodka. This brand is “designed for women by women because no one understands your taste more than someone in the same shoes.” LBD comes in different flavors, suitable for whatever kind of woman you are: “up for anything,” a “fearless leader” or “risqué in a good way.”

So that’s progress, alcohol-ad style: Finally, women can drink without sacrificing their femininity—just as long as they aren’t risqué in a bad way.

To further capitalize on women’s increasing alcohol consumption, new products take advantage the exploding diet industry. Lower-cal alternatives, like the popular SkinnyGirl Vodka, promise body-conscious women that they can both drink and lose weight. “One of the reasons women might not drink as much is because they’re worried about the calories,” says Kilbourne. “[Products like SkinnyGirl vodka are] an attempt to offset that. There’s a lot of association between women with alcoholism and eating disorders.”

And in the 21st Century, the Internet has only made it easier for advertisers to target people who might be especially vulnerable to these messages—like college students and teens. “It’s getting worse,” says Kilbourne, “Advertisers are in the business of increasing products, and that means increasing consumption.”

May Wilkerson is the senior editor at Substance.com.