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Alcohol companies’ “social responsibility” campaigns increase brand loyalty and positive perceptions of the products, without reducing alcohol-related harms, according to a critic of the industry.

“These campaigns provide alcohol companies with a great deal of PR opportunities, and make them look like a credible public health source with regulators, legislators and the public—it’s a huge problem,” says Sarah Mart, MS, MPH of the industry watchdog group Alcohol Justice. She spoke about the campaigns at the recent American Public Health Association annual meeting.

Recent social responsibility campaigns have included advertising and products associated with causes such as HIV/AIDS, LGBT equality, breast cancer, and natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, a number of alcohol companies run campaigns to associate their products with the issue, including Mike’s Hard Pink Lemonade in support of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Chambord “Pink Your Drink” campaign.

Belvedere Vodka promotes its special edition red bottle to raise proceeds for the Global Fund, which finances programs to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Absolut Pride campaign for LGBT equality featured a limited-edition rainbow-striped bottle of vodka.

Last year, following Hurricane Sandy, Anheuser-Busch packaged more than a million cans of emergency drinking water for residents impacted by that and other natural disasters. The cans were labeled “donated by Anheuser-Busch,” and included the company logo.

Sarah Mart, MS, MPH

Sarah Mart, MS, MPH

“These companies take out ads calling attention to these campaigns,” Mart says. “At the end of the day, they do this to increase the value of the brand and to increase profits as well.”

Young people see these campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, which capitalize on people’s personal connection with the issue, Mart notes.

In addition to social responsibility campaigns, alcohol companies also benefit from “drink responsibly” campaigns, she observes. Last year, Alcohol Justice released a report about those campaigns, which concluded the evidence is that “drink responsibly” messages are not shown to be effective policies to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Alcohol Justice reviewed “drink responsibly” messages in print ads in the September/October 2011 issues of 41 magazines with a high proportion of youth readership. They analyzed frequency, location, size, and content of beer, spirits and alcopops brand ads found in those publications, and compared the size of “drink responsibly” messages, if present, in the ads. They found 94 percent of the ads contained “drink responsibly” messages, but many blended into backgrounds so they were difficult to see, or were tiny in relation to the size of the entire ad.

“‘Drink responsibly’ and ‘social responsibility’ campaigns are a conflict of interest in a variety of ways,” said Mart, who wrote the report. “With the so-called social responsibility campaigns, the alcohol company produces a product that contributes to harm – breast cancer or HIV, for example – and then capitalizes on that harm to increase positive feelings about the product. It’s a never-ending cycle. While it works very well for the company, it does not work well for public health.”


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