Stone Cold Marketing: Selling Alcohol to Young African Americans

The former owner of the Payless Market in South Los Angeles, gleefully described how the Black community’s passion for malt liquor and his “unofficial grassroots advertising campaign” allowed him to significantly increase his store revenue within a few weeks and save his business.

The store had a license to sell beer and wine, but to compete with liquor stores in the area, he happened upon the idea of painting on the front of his store a large sign that shouted “Cold Beer” (although then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and community activist forced him to the remove it). He returned to the drawing board and put an old claw-foot bathtub filled with bottles of malt liquor under crushed ice in the middle of the store. The crude marketing ploy worked, and his malt liquor sales increased by 60 percent.

Today, the marketing of alcoholic beverages to African Americans, especially their youth has become a lot more sophisticated.

Drug, alcohol and tobacco counselor Tony Lavaughn Johnson, a former Shields for Families senior youth specialist, has heard it all.

References to alcohol beverages have been noted in rap music lyrics throughout its existence. Given that listening to music is the one of the primary leisure-time activities of adolescents, along with texting, and the fact that most teenagers know nearly all of the lyrics to their favorite songs, music is one potential source from which young consumers of popular culture receive information about alcohol.

Jay Z, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Ludacris are among the Hip Hop luminaries who have promoted alcohol, according to Johnson.

Montell Jordan’s song, “This Is How We Do It” (1995) was in vogue particularly with gang members in the ’90s.

Johnson said he would hold group therapy at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings locally and a lot of the clients would reminisce about how they would hang out with fellow gang members and consume malt liquor on Friday nights, blasting the song while drinking 40 ounces, a reference to the 40-ounce-size malt liquor bottles.

This is how we do it.
It’s Friday night, and I feel all right
The party is here on the West side
So I reach for my ’40, and I turn it up
Designated driver take the keys to my truck
Hit the shore ’cause I’m faded
Honey’s in the street say, “Monty, yo we made it!”
It feels so good in my hood tonight
The summertime skirts and the guys in Kani
All the gang bangers forgot about the drive-by
You gotta get your groove on, before you go get paid
So tip up your cup and throw your hands up
And let me hear the party say
I’m kinda buzzed, and it’s all because
(This is how we do it)
South Central does it like nobody does
(This is how we do it)

The song was a hit in the U.S and Europe for weeks, and Johnson also described how brewers would use it to market malt liquor to Blacks in France and Germany. American brewers in the past have used the Afro-German communities as test markets for their malt liquor, especially in Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne.

Alfred “Coach” Powell, a drug counselor and author of the book, “Message in a Bottle,” writes that malt liquor is made from the very end of the brewing process and is known as beer scrap. He explained that some brewers have even injected menthol into the brewing process to make it more palatable. And it is known that low levels of formaldehyde are also used to control the fungi.

Johnson feels young African Americans 12- to 20-years-old see far more alcohol ads on television and in magazines than youth in general, and this is confirmed by a report published last month by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The report cited two key factors at play: many alcohol ads specifically target African Americans and African American youth who consume more media than youth overall. For example, African American youth watched 53 percent more television than youth in general in 2010, according to Nielsen data cited in the study.

Despite the Johns Hopkins findings, young Blacks actually drink less than youth of other racial and ethnic groups. Researchers say this may be linked to factors such as poverty, social norms and religion which temper some of advertising’s impacts.

But African Americans who drink seem to suffer more serious consequences, said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, perhaps because they tend to have less access to healthcare and substance-abuse treatment, live in poorer neighborhoods and are incarcerated more frequently.

Alcohol consumption is linked to three leading causes of death among young African Americans—homicide, suicide and accidental injury.

“There’s rationale for being extra careful,” said Jernigan, whose group receives funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has put out dozens of reports on alcohol marketing to youths over the last decade. The findings suggest that young people’s substance use and aggressive behaviors may be related to their frequent exposure to music containing references to substance use and violence.

A study conducted in 2006 called, “Music, Substance Use and Aggression” by Meng-Jinn Chen, Brenda A. Miller, Joel W. Grube and Elizabeth D. Waiters, states that music-listening preference, conversely, may reflect some personal predispositions or lifestyle preferences. There is also the possibility that substance use, aggression, and music preference are independent constructs that share common “third factors.” This intensifies the possibility for destruction when advertisers and culture exposes youth to drinking.

Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of United States, said the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth’s research on the topic is flawed. It “has repeatedly issued press releases saying the industry’s advertising is increasingly targeting youth,” he said, even as statistics show that underage drinking is declining.

He pointed to a recent federal government survey showing that teenage drinking fell to a historic low in 2011, when only 25.1 percent of 12- to 20-year-olds reported using alcohol in the past month

Jernigan’s study, however, stops short of claiming that advertisers are targeting Black youth. “I can’t call it targeting because targeting implies intent and I can’t prove intent,” the researcher said.

Marketers’ messages are increasingly reinforced by Hip Hop culture, researchers at UC Berkeley reported in 2011. An analysis of rap lyrics showed 64 percent of the most popular songs released from 2002 to 2005 referenced alcohol. This marked a steep rise in such references. An earlier analysis of rap songs from 1994 to 1997 showed 44 percent contained alcohol references.

Booze ads are also common in magazines read by Black Americans, said Lorreen Pryor, president of the Black Youth Leadership Project in Sacramento. “You keep flipping the pages and the (alcohol ads) are back to back.”

The study comes amid efforts to ban alcohol advertising on public property in some cities. The Community Coalition, a local nonprofit, asked the Los Angeles City Council to ban alcohol ads on property such as bus shelters, and last year the company that manages the city’s bus benches agreed to disallow alcohol ads.

Boston recently stopped alcohol advertising in public transit and advocates hope to extend the ban in other public areas. Minority youth frequently use public transportation and this would help shield them from alcohol ads, said Bruce Lee Livingston, executive director of Alcohol Justice, an industry watchdog.

However, the new study suggests marketers are falling short on limiting youth exposure to alcohol ads. Young Blacks saw 32 percent more alcohol ads in magazines and 17 percent more on television than youth overall in 2009, researchers found. While African American youth were exposed to 26 percent fewer radio ads for alcohol than youth in general, they he
ard 32 percent more radio ads for hard liquor.

In magazines, African American youth were 92 percent more likely to see ads for “alcopops”—cheap, sweet, fizzy alcoholic drinks that are of particular concern to anti-alcohol advocates because they appeal to youth. The Snoop Dogg—promoted Blast is a flavored alcoholic beverage sometimes called an alcopop, a colloquial term that describes certain flavored alcoholic beverages, including malt beverages, to which various fruit juices or other flavorings have been added. Others alcopops include Four Loko, Joose and Tilt.

Alcohol advertising in magazines overall declined by nearly 20 percent between 2003 and 2008, researchers found, due likely to a general decline in magazine advertising.

In contrast, cable television has seen a “major ramp-up” in alcohol ads, particularly for hard liquor, Jernigan said. The four largest television networks—ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC—do not advertise distilled alcohol. But African American youth saw 20 percent more ads for hard liquor than youth overall. “TV is going in the wrong direction,” Jernigan said.

Members of the beer, wine and distilled spirits trade associations have agreed to avoid placing ads during TV programs with audiences made up of 28.4 percent or more people under age 21. Still, advocates say these voluntary standards are poorly enforced. “The self-regulation pledge has not worked,” said Bruce Livingston, executive director/CEO of Alcohol Justice, a watchdog group that polices the alcohol advertising industry. The group would like to see government regulation of the industry.

While advertisers often say they can’t keep youth from seeing messages that are intended for adults, Jernigan isn’t buying it: “The industry knows quite precisely what they are doing.”

African American culture isn’t targeted by high-end alcohol companies. The producers of Cristal, an exclusive brand of champagne, were apparently not overjoyed when rap artists began mentioning the brand in lyrics. In an interview with The Economist in 2006, managing director Frederic Rouzaud of Louis Roederer, the maker of the wine, said he viewed the attention from rappers with “curiosity and serenity.”

Asked if he thought the association would harm the brand, he replied, “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”

The alcohol brewers have always produced elixirs that target a specific group, which is how they base their advertising strategy. When one sees ads targeting African Americans they are more often than not partying in the back yard or the club holding bottles of beer. There was one print ad that ran in Ebony and Jet magazines showing a Black couple embracing, and the beautiful female isn’t wearing a wedding ring and makes eye contact with the reader. The caption reads, “Life is good.”

The ad, whose target is African American females, is a typical form of subliminal marketing.

In 1996, a beer commercial won a Cleo Award for best commercial of the year. The commercial has Black ants carrying a bottle of beer across a desert-type landscape while African drums are playing. For a brief second, the lead ant crosses barbed wire, which is not visible unless one pauses the tape to see it. This is another subliminal message that could infer prison or some type of barrier. Once the ants reach their colony the bottle is placed inside the opening, the drums stop and KC and the Sunshine Band’s get “Get Down Tonight”—”do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight”—starts blaring.

Ads aimed at White males portray a more subdued setting such as a sports bar or a living room while viewing a basketball or football game. But some of those ads also involve male silliness.

A top beer-selling ad is the Most Interesting Man in the World commercial for Dos Equis, which is directed at Hispanic drinkers.

Recently, Hispanic beer drinkers appeared to be the new frontier for brewers. Having the African American as major consumers of malt liquor, the industry is continuing to look for major growth in the U.S. market and are not about to ignore Latinos, who make up 16 percent of the U.S. population.

As the Latino population grows, beer marketers are trying more nuanced ways of influencing this key segment.

“They love beer,” says Jim Sabia, chief marketing officer for Crown Imports, which distributes such Mexican beers as Corona and Modelo. “Hispanics are 19 percent more likely to purchase beer than the rest of U.S. consumers.” On top of that, Hispanics will make up a large portion of the legal drinking-age population in the future.

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