In the Doghouse

Dry January Makes Big Alcohol Pray for Rain

Tropical downpour CCBig Alcohol’s birds have come home to roost, and yet the industry is still determined to fry them up and sell them as sandwiches. Dry January, the social media-propagated health pledge* to steer clear of alcohol for the first month of the year, continues to grow, with 19% of American consumers participating in some way. While only half of those responding say their interest is to cut alcohol out entirely, this still threatens to be a substantial short-term hit to the industry bottom line.

So what can an industry do when the harms of its products are so self-evident that nearly a fifth of adults want to walk away from them entirely? Should it a) mock the entire effort; b) co-opt the entire effort; or c) flag-wave to make non-drinkers seem like enemies of America? Well, why not all three?

A. Mock

Pabst Blue Ribbon wasted no time in launching a campaign deriding Dry January. On January 3rd, they began a campaign by tweeting, “Not drinking this January? Try eating ---.”  (Alcohol Justice trusts its readership to intuit the omitted three-letter word.)

They also wasted no time in shuttering it when the response was split between PBR fans egging on the overamped belligerence, and normal Twitter users objecting to the tone and/or content. PBR management was quick to blame an “associate” and ostensibly distance themselves from the scandal, but not before the campaign had achieved trending status on the platform and generated plentiful news coverage.

We should emphasize the vagueness of PBR’s apology, which said simply that they were “handling the matter internally.” It is not clear that anyone faced reprimand, or that any third-party contracts terminated. In fact, it seems likely the “scandal” did what it was supposed to: raised public awareness of PBR as a brand.

The crude language and likely two-faced apology aside, the actual cruelty in this campaign comes through its effort to undercut people who are making efforts to change their drinking behavior. As much as we like to think recovery or cutting back is accomplished through sheer force of will, the one factor that ties every effective mode of behavior change together is community support. Having friends and peers recognize and support your efforts vastly improves your chances of success.

PBR recognized this. Behind their “edginess” was fear. They were desperate to make people considering engaging in Dry January feel like they were isolated, pathetic, and powerless. A chorus of macho, adolescent contempt from the echo chamber of social media could achieve just that. By leaning hard into a brief, well-publicized bout of schoolyard cruelty, they helped the company continue to gorge on its customers.

B. Co-Opt

As global alcohol brands saturate markets worldwide, bend legislators to their wills, and inundate every mass communications channel with images celebrating drinking, there comes a breaking point. Dry January is one of these breaking points, a wide-scale, mostly organic admission that most people feel like they are drinking more than they would like to. This puts Big Alcohol in a precarious position: how do you monetize a popular desire to not drink, while doing the utmost to keep customers drinking?

Heineken’s effort takes the form of “Try January.” This sweepstakes seeks to urge Dry January participants to sample Heineken NA, offering them a vacation package to Hawaii in exchange for acknowledging the brand. (No purchase necessary, by the way. We entered.)

This is largely less pernicious than PBR’s campaign. It acknowledges individuals’ agency in engaging in reducing or eliminating alcohol for a month. Yet it does so in an effort to make money from people seeking respite from the problems… the same company has caused. It even co-opts a catchy motto that originated from the public health community. The inherent cynicism in this attitude leaves a bad taste no cheap lager could wash away. But this campaign also contains more subtle undermining strategies.

In a broad sense, it seeks not just to enhance brand loyalty, but to create a confusion between Heineken NA and basic Heineken. The bottles are nearly identical, and the sense of customer good will from the contest will perpetuate after Dry January is over. (In fact, it is a good rule of thumb when dealing with alcohol companies that any contest, philanthropy, or giveaway has been planned with the assumption that it will generate more in profits than it costs in perks.)

But there is also the language of the contest itself. “Try January is here, and there's nothing dry about it,” the page declares. We here at Alcohol Justice could not figure out exactly what the “nothing dry about it” actually referred to. Was it the liquid from the bottle? The beaches in Hawaii? Was it somehow innuendo? The message was garbled, which seemed an improbable stumble for the marketing department of a multibillion dollar, global company.

Even more improbable when you bear in mind that Big Alcohol long ago successfully cracked the code for undermining public health messaging while seeming to promote it. Not only is Dry January co-opted as a marketing message, but the message tries to supplant it. It casts “dry” in a negative light, in stark contrast to the point of the Dry January campaign. Dry January is not an annual deep-dive into our potentials to feel better in our bodies—it’s a dorky, unfun trend. Think only of Try January, the generous, sunny celebration of a cheap, mass-market, usually alcoholic beverage brand.

We will still go to Hawaii if we win, though.

C. Flag-Wave

The New York Post’s clickbait editorial calling Dry January ‘pure evil’ is a bombastic appeal to drink in the name of… the economy. Aside from its contempt for “[t]emporary health nuts … turning beloved bars into wastelands at a moment in history in which there have never been more reasons to drink,” the evidence of financial impacts are tenuous at best. (For example, one Midtown bartender describes being devastated by the absence of formerly regular lunchtime customers. We cannot back this up with research data, but we suspect lunchtime bar patrons do not engage in Dry January.)

The article borders on parody, but the arguments of Big Alcohol’s useful idiots are seemingly parody-proof—a week before the Post, The Onion ran a satirical cartoon that used essentially the same arguments. InsideHook’s food and drink critic posted a simple and effective evisceration of the Post piece, saving us some typing.

But the Post, in its buffoonery, amplifies a legitimate concern facing the United States. For two years, the country has staked the economic security of the working class on alcohol sales. Massive deregulation swept through every state, short term expansions of the spaces where alcohol consumption is encouraged and the methods by which it can be provided, all in the names of the economic security of the service industry. Now many, if not most states, are trying to make these deregulations permanent.

It is no surprise, then, that for many—even those who have enjoyed the expanded bar footprints and to-go cocktails—this has created a lasting fatigue around the product. The whole organic nature of the Dry January movement reflects its participants’ intuitively understanding that constant alcohol consumption wears on the body and mind.

So congratulations to all those participating in Dry January. You have cut through a 500 billion dollar industry’s efforts to sneer at you, misdirect you, and cast you as the villain. Hopefully you feel a little better this month than you would have. Let’s do it again soon.

* Although Dry January started as an organized campaign by the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Alcohol Change, backed with apps and community building, it has grown internationally and a large number of those who don’t drink for the month, especially in the United States, both learn about it and commit to it via their own friend groups.

WATCH a video on the day-by-day benefits of cutting out booze.
READ MORE about California’s efforts to deregulate the alcohol industry.