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Shady Marketing Practices


Four Loko marketing

Four Loko: It's Crystal Meth in a Can!

A few of the comments on yesterday’s post about the new FDA Four Loko ban were slightly sympathetic, if not outrightly so, because Four Loko’s marketing was perceived as “shady.”


I am not insensitive to this view but I think their marketing strategy is largely irrelevant.

According to the commenters Four Loko “looks like an energy drink.” Others noted the bright labeling. Still others noted that it was found in convenience stores and not always far enough from the energy drinks it resembled.

But the fact of the matter is that either young people were buying it illegally from stores that didn’t verify the purchaser was 21 or over, or people were buying it for those underage drinkers. In either case, there is a culpable party allowing underage drinkers access to the beverage. I mean (look at the picture to the right) alcohol content was a point of braggadaccio for the firm.

More to the point, to some extent all marketing is shady, even if it’s marketing for a good you support or that seems value neutral. Marketing is an industry developed in response to consumers values, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and norms. It is often irrational in that marketing is rarely an appeal to logic. And when it is an appeal to logic, it’s because consumer surveys have revealed that the target audience is more easily persuaded by such appeals.

It’s not marketing is trying to “trick” the consumers, per se. It is that they have a good, one you almost certainly don’t need, or, if you do need it, there is competition between two or more basically undifferentiated products, undifferentiated, that is, except for their marketing.

Even products as benign as Coke and Pepsi are, despite outcries in defiance, are basically indistinguishable to most drinkers. But they sell different lifestyles. This isn’t a trick. This is part of how we form identities. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s for another post.

And it’s also true that, unfortunately, industries like tobacco and alcohol receive an disproportionate amount of their revenue from overusers and abusers. As a result many manufacturers target these audiences in their advertisements.

But, when it comes down to it, those things are neither here nor there.

Marketing is marketing and, aside from outright lying, they have the right to talk about their product anyway they like.

Now, this would be a different story entirely if it could be proved that Four Loko actually constituted a gross risk to health above and beyond what society deems is tolerable. I have my doubts if this is the case. More likely it the notion of “young people having ‘too much’ fun” that is deemed inappropriate. Look at the Ball State story I linked to yesterday. Why else bring up the drinks supposed (and almost certainly) mythical aphrodisiac properties other than to link young people with booze and sex and thereby prove the immoral character of the drink and its manufacturers?

Some argued that, because the drink contains caffeine, which keeps you alert, and because it contains so much of it…and so much alcohol …that novice, unwary, or foolhardy drinkers weren’t aware how much they are drinking. This might be true. And even if we can’t prove such a claim definitively, it does seem reasonable. To this I say, if regulation is the only way, then the regulatory action is clear and it doesn’t involve prohibition.

Craft brewers regularly serve high ABV beers in smaller servings, Belgian Strong Ales, for example. In certain states it is illegal to serve “double shots” of hard liquor. For a time in DC and some other places hard liquor could only be served from those tiny airplane bottles so as to avoid bartender discretion on shot size. So governments, at least on some levels, already have the ability to regulate serving sizes. So simply regulate the can size so that no more than “a serving” of alcohol can be imbibed in a can. If people still overdrink the product, then I predict these are drinkers that would overdrink regardless. Alcohol poisoning occurred before Four Loko and it will continue in its absence.

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Posted in Advertising, Alcopop.

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