How are low/er strength wines and beers marketed online?

Low alcohol beers and wines have the potential to reduce alcohol consumption by acting as alternatives to regular strength counterparts. However, new research published in BMC Public Health finds that rather than being marketed as alternatives, these lower alcohol drinks were more likely to be sold as being suitable for any occasion and therefore may not be promoting healthy drinking habits.

Alcohol is the fifth leading cause of death and disability globally. Increased availability of low/er strength alcohols has the potential to reduce alcohol consumption if they are consumed as substitutes for – rather than in addition to – higher strength products. For consumers to treat these products as substitutes, the marketing messages used will likely play an important role.

In our study published today in BMC Public Health, we report an analysis of marketing messages on producers’ and retailers’ websites for low/er and regular strength wines and beers sold online by the four main supermarkets in the UK (Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons).

We compared messages marketing low/er strength wines and beers across 86 web pages with messages marketing comparable regular strength wines and beers across another 86 web pages. Low strength alcohol products were defined as containing less than 1.2% alcohol and lower strength alcohol products as containing less than 8.5% for wine and 2.8% for beer.

Low/er strength beer was described as suitable for consumption on additional occasions to regular strength products including sports events

We identified four main themes in the marketing messages: occasions, health-related, alcohol content and taste. Of these themes, the different occasion, health-related and alcohol content messages were more often present for the low/er strength alcohol products.

Low/er strength wines were more likely to be marketed as suitable for consumption on any occasion or every day, for example as “lunchtime treats” or “perfect for all occasions”. Low/er strength beer was described as suitable for consumption on additional occasions to regular strength products including sports events such as “to refresh thirsty sportsmen and women”.

Marketing for low/er strength wines and beers was also more likely to include text or images associated with health, and information about calorie and carbohydrate content. We didn’t find any messages about drinking less or alcohol associated harms.

Taken together, the pattern of these findings suggests that low/er strength alcohol products may not contribute to a public health strategy to reduce alcohol consumption and related harms. These findings also add to an existing literature that highlights how measures intended to benefit public health – in this case wider availability of low/er strength alcohols – may benefit industry to the detriment of the health of the public.

Because we only looked at low/er strength wines and beers found on the websites of the four main supermarkets in the UK (and the respective producers’ webpages) future studies could extend the present findings by including other marketing platforms, and in different countries.

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