The Cambridge University study found that lower alcohol drinks were more likely to be marketed as suitable for any occasion, with additional drinking occasions such as lunchtimes or sports and fitness events included in messaging.
They also suggest that lower alcohol drinks are being marketed as a replacement for soft drinks, rather than an alternative to higher strength alcoholic products.
The non-alcohol and low-alcohol sector is growing: driven by health conscious consumers who are seeking to limit their alcohol consumption or choose to abstain for other reasons.
Alcoholic drinks companies are expanding their no/low alcohol portfolios while retailers are increasing the space dedicated to such products.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge set out to compare the marketing messages used by retailers and producers on low alcohol wine and beer and regular strength products, for items sold online by the four main UK retailers (Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) in February and March 2016.
‘Regular strength’ products were defined as wines above 8.5% ABV and beers above 2.8% ABV (although in practice most ‘regular strength’ products were above this threshold).
Researchers found that lower alcohol products were more likely to be positioned around health and associated with a new range of drinking occasions; yet did not provide messages about reducing alcohol harm.
“Compared with regular strength products, lower strength equivalents were more often marketed in association with occasions deemed to be suitable for their consumption including lunchtimes (wine), outdoor events and barbeques (beer) or on sports and fitness occasions (beer),” write researchers in the study.
“Furthermore, compared with regular strength wines and beers, lower strength equivalents were more frequently marketed with images or text associated with health.
“These included images of fruit and the provision of their energy (calorie) and carbohydrate content.”
The researchers say this broadening of occasions suggests that lower alcohol products are being marketed as a replacement for soft drinks: rather than as an alternative for regular strength alcohol.
Lower strength alcohol ‘part of a healthy lifestyle’?
The researchers say the 'explicit reference to health benefits of lower strength alcohol alternatives' suggests that the industry and retailers are seeking to appeal to the large group of health conscious millennials.
"It may also be part of a wider industry strategy to imply the health benefits of alcohol more generally, which is currently not possible with regular strength products under existing advertising restrictions. This is consistent with the current industry strategy to position alcohol consumption as “part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Meanwhile, the relation between sports events and alcohol sponsorship has long been controversial: and researchers raise concerns that this is mirrored with lower alcohol beverages: “Linking consumption of lower strength beer with sports is reminiscent of the traditional mode of regular strength alcohol advertising which has often been synonymous with sponsorship of sports events,” they say. “This is concerning because the linking of alcohol with sports and fitness has been associated with risky drinking.”
The researchers acknowledge that their study only covered messaging on online retailing sites: not other platforms such as social media or billboards.
The researchers conclude that “The pattern of these findings suggests that lower 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 lower strength alcohols – may benefit industry to the detriment of the health of the public.”
Units removed from market
However, The Portman Group - an industry body for promoting responsible alcohol standards with AB InBev, Diageo and Heineken among its members - champions the development of low and no alcohol options for consumers and cautions against drawing conclusions from the study.
It says that by lowering the strength of popular brands and introducing lower alcohol alternatives, producers are able to give people "the chance to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed without reducing the number of drinks they purchase, thus improving public health without damaging the viability of business".
Responding to the Cambridge University study, a spokesperson said: "I'm sure most people would agree that the phenomenal growth in innovative and great tasting low and no-alcohol drinks is a good thing and will be entirely baffled by another academic study that seems to be suggesting otherwise."
Woodstar, a new low alcohol 1% proof berry blend that is launching in the UK next week, says the findings of the study do not match up with its own experience of the market.
Simon Baldry of Woodstar said: “The Cambridge report doesn’t make sense in our view.
"Our company conducted consumer research before launching our new 1% proof drink. It showed many people are looking to limit their intake of alcohol but find the alternatives unsatisfactory because they are too dull or too sweet. They want a grown up alternative, with an adult palate to sip and savour at occasions when they might otherwise drink alcohol.
"It is about a wider choice for people looking to drink less alcohol not more."
Source: ‘Marketing messages accompanying online selling of low/er and regular strength wine and beer products in the UK: a content analysis’. Milica Vasiljevic, Lucia Coulter, Mark Petticrew and Theresa M. Marteau
BMC Public Health BMC series – open, inclusive and trusted 2018 18:147, Published 8 February 2018. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5040-6