What Youth Are Drinking These Days and How Big Alcohol Marketing Targets Them
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
The manipulation of teens by "addiction for profit" industries through marketing is
an excellent topic to discuss with your child that may resonate and cause them to think. In addition to alcohol, the topic also applies to the tobacco, vape and cannabis industries which use the same tactics (to the extent they are legally able to do so). This blog will focus on alcohol, and we hope it can help jumpstart important conversations with your child.
The alcohol industry is very adept at using the following classic "Four Ps" of marketing to appeal to youth:
Product: Packaging with bright colors that look like non-alcoholic drinks, denote sweet flavors and have "cool" fun names
Promotion: heavy online marketing to tech savvy kids in a manner that is attractive to them. Often promoted as being healthy (for example, low in calories and sugar, containing vitamins such as B6 and B12 and labeled as “organic and natural”)
Price: often lower than similar non-alcoholic drinks
Placement: at grocery, liquor stores and gas station convenience markets placed near or in the same color in between, for example, chocolate milk and orange juice or just across from the candy aisle.
Note that these strategies are also used, to varying degrees, by the tobacco, vape and cannabis industries - to the extent legally possible. Examples of legal restrictions are that flavored vaping products are now being banned in many jurisdictions so their "placement" is limited. Similarly, THC cannabis, is of course, currently unavailable in regular retail stores. That may change if federal legislations is approved legalizing cannabis nationwide. For now, many cannabis storefronts locate near schools, parks and other spots frequented by youth. And, with respect to CBD products, cannabis companies have been very successful at placing these products at grocery stores, spas and the like - even veterinarian offices - sending a marketing message that CBD cures all ills, for humans and animals alike (we acknowledge it can be helpful).
Anyway, back to alcohol, the issue at hand ...
ALCOHOL PRODUCTS OUR LOCAL YOUTH DRINKING THESE DAYS AND HOW IT'S MARKETED
Alcohol at local teen parties typically includes Hard Seltzers and Smirnoff Ice, aka "Alcopops".
What are Alcopops? It's not a term that our kids use (or even know) but one that is used by public health advocates. Alcohol Justice, the watchdog of the alcohol industry based in San Rafael, describes them here as sweetened alcoholic beverages, often with fruit flavors
and packaged like soda pop. With youth oriented bright eye-catching colors and graphics, alcopops appeal to kids, are easy to conceal (no alcohol breath) and they go down easy. Most important to the bottom line (i.e., industry profits), alcopops serve as a transition for youth (especially girls) from soda to alcohol. That's why they're referred to as "training wheels for young drinkers".
Local youth also drink/take shots of Hard Liquor, typically flavored Vodka, Tequila and Fireball Whiskey, that are either chased with soda or juice (or salt and a lime for tequila) or combined into a red solo cap ("Mixies").
Here's the latest on alcohol products popular with our local youth and how they are consumed. Street cred thanks to the local teens who provided the inside scoop to BTI!
The hard seltzer market has exploded in the last three years. Between 2018-2020, hard seltzer sales jumped from $500 million to $4 billion, with higher numbers expected for 2021. It's a crowded space, with a dizzying areay of brands, each looking to stand out. Joint ventures with popular culture celebrities with huge social media fan bases is one such tactic to get consumer and youth attention.
The first thing to know is that contrary to popular belief (including by some youth), the vast majority of hard seltzers do not contain vodka. As explained in this article, they are cane sugar or malt based and get their alcohol through a fermentation process that is different than beer, with the malt filtered out to remove the taste and odor. Added are carbonated water and flavorings. The one exception is High Noon Seltzer, which, although is still malt based, has "real vodka and real juice."
The most popular brands these days with our local teens are as follows:
Happy Dads. Highlighted in our 2020 BTI Blog on "How Adolescents and Young Adults Drink" (which has been updated and is worth a read), the most popular hard seltzers have
been White Claw and Truly for the last few years. While these two brands are still ubiquitous at teen parties and popular with girls, Happy Dads is the newest hard seltzer that our local boys have gravitated towards.
Happy Dads comes in the same White Claw/Truly flavors of Wild Cherry, Pineapple, Lemon Lime and Watermelon. (White Claw and Truly have many additional flavors). Like Truly and White Claw's flavored Iced Tea Hard Seltzers (popular with youth), Happy Dads are just 100 calories with one gram of sugar (other White Claw hard seltzers have two grams of sugar). This low calorie/sugar content isn't filling, and with the flavorings, can lead to drinking more. And anything that's low cal/sugar is especially appealing to teen girls.
Despite all the similarities with White Claw, Truly and others, Happy Dads' website boasts that it's "the GOAT of all hard seltzers", distinguished by "No More Skinny Can Bullshit" and having "fxxking electrolytes" and other attributes.
But what really distinguishes Happy Dads is a special marketing weapon that has enabled it to quickly penetrate the male youth market since its release in June 2021: YouTube stars The Nelk Boys. Well before Happy Dads was released into the market, its owners, the Nelk Boys, were immensely popular among youth. Currently, they have a YouTube following of 6.6 million fans.
Profiled in this recent New York Times article, What Won't the Nelk Boys Do?, Happy Dads' appeal to teens and 20-something guys is simple - a sophomoric "bro" culture, prankster, and party hard lifestyle. As Happy Dads' founder, who formed Nelk's YouTube channel as a high school freshman, has stated, summarizing their brand and power: "Every video we're swearing, we're doing some stuff that could be questionable or illegal, we're making sexual references or drug references ... [o]nce you have your own platform, you can do whatever you want. Ps. Our sources tell us that most girls think the Nelk Boys marketing is stupid.
"BINGE DRINKING IN A CAN": Super-Sized and Boozier. Meanwhile, White Claw and Truly hard seltzers are still ubiquitous in the teen party scene and are consumed by all teens (especially the girls who don't think Happy Dads is cool :). Both come in a multitude of flavors and their party lifestyle marketing is reflected in their slogans "Life Truly is full of Flavor and Fun" and "Let's Claw".
Together, they have captured 75% of the hard seltzer market. Both brands have super-
sized 16 and 24-ounce versions of their 5%, with Truly advertising it's line with the slogan, "Bigger is Better" and images like the one here.
Competition between the two companies is fierce. In the spring of 2021, Truly rolled out a new line called Truly Extra, with an increased ABV of 8% (versus 5% in the "OG" original) and in 12 and 16-ounce cans. Truly promoted its new product on Twitter ("8% alc./vol? Yup.") and boasted it was taking on the convenience store market where shoppers trend toward "single serve higher ABV beverages". Not to be outdone, soon thereafter, White Claw introduced it's boozier White Surge, also with an 8% ABV and sold in 16-ounce cans.
Entering the higher ABV fray in 2021 in a joint venture with Anheuser-Busch was rap star Travis Scott and his flavored Cacti Agave Spiked Seltzer with 7% ABV. It was a short-lived one, however, but not one for lack of genius marketing. Scott invited fans on a nationwide hunt for 100 signed cans of Catci that unlocked two tickets to the sold out November Astroworld Festival. We know the tragedy that ensued. Before that, they were hit
by a class action law suit for their advertising and labeling that Cacti contained 100% premium Blue Agave from Mexico, which allegedly mislead consumers. Turns out it only contained agave sweetener, not agave spirits. And in the wake of the deadly Astroworld concert, a few days ago, Anheuser-Busch announced it was stopping all production and brand development of the product.
Then there is Beat Box Beverages, which is all the rage on college campuses and likely coming to teen parties soon. With an initial investment by Mark Cuban after a Shark Tank presentation by Beat Box Beverages' then college student founders, their flavored "Hard Punch" packs a punch at an 11.1% ABV. Beat Box Beverages' website boasts its product is
equivalent to four light beers, but with zero grams of sugar and only 90 calories. It's hashtag, #DoThePartyMath is all over social media with pop up ads and YouTube videos.
Consistent with the alcohol and now cannabis industry strategies of marketing to youth, Beat Box Beverages has an apparel line which includes hoodies, beanies, baseball and trucker hats, and T-shirts. And fanny packs :).
High Noon Sun Sips with Vodka. This is the most upscale of hard seltzers that some local teens drink. High Noon's legitimate distinguishing characteristic is that it has "real vodka" (distilled five times) and "real fruit juices" (eight of them). Owned by E&J Gallo, the giant wine company (which also owns New Amsterdam Vodka), High Noon was launched in 2019. At first, it had Covid challenges, including a shortage of cans. Now it's doing just fine.
Another big advantage that High Noon has a marketing partnership with Bar Stool Sports (another one for the bros), an immensely popular sports media platform with 66 million unique monthly views and a
dedicated male fan base called "Stoolies". But girls like High Noon too, for its taste. High Noon has also partnered with Tropical Brothers for a de rigueur apparel line, which includes hats and bathing trunks.
However, most local youth aren't splurging for High Noon. Because it contains vodka, it's taxed at a higher spirits rate and is pricier than the other hard seltzers. Worse for youth, it "only" contains 4.5% ABV (yes, kids look at this). So most have concluded it's not worth the extra bucks (thought that's not a barrier for many Marin County teens). For 20-somethings, however, High Noon is making inroads in challenging top dog White Claw.
One of the original Alcopops, Smirnoff Ice has been around for two decades. It's been aggressively marketed to youth, initially in print and on network television at times in front of part of an audience between the ages of 12-20 years old, and subsequently on social medai. Smirnoff Ice been a dominant beverage in the Alcopops category. "Icing", which became a viral drinking game started by a group of fraternity brothers back in 2010, cemented that status. But sweeter than today's hard seltzers, Smirnoff Ice has never made claims it's part of a healthy lifestyle.
Despite competition from the hard seltzers over the past few years which do make those claims, Smirnoff Ice continues to be popular
with local youth. With 18 flavors, some named for cocktails such as Peach Bellini, Watermelon Mimosa, Margarita and Screwdriver, it comes in 22-ounce bottles and 12-ounce six-packs of bottles and cans. Although it has the brand name of the best selling vodka in the world, like the hard seltzers, Smirnoff Ice has no vodka.
The big advantage for Smirnoff is that the transition from Smirnoff Ice to Smirnoff Vodka for young consumers is seamless. Score one for Smirnoff - they are in the long game.
HARD LIQUOR: SHOTS WITH CHASERS AND "MIXIES" .
Not surprisingly, it's easy for youth to transition from Hard Seltzers, Smirnoff Ice and other Alcopops to the real deal, hard liquor.
"White" distilled spirits such as vodka and tequila are popular as they don't have the harsh tastes associated with "brown" distilled spirits (whiskey and bourbons). And as always, fruit flavors and sugar is a great way to create hard liquor beverages that are more akin to soft drinks. The huge number of vodka products on the market come in dozens of flavors. In this way, vodka essentially has been rebranded as a young person's alcohol.
Youth often drink straight vodka and tequila by taking swigs from "handles" (large bottles passed around), chased with large bottles of soft drinks such as Sprite or juices such as lemonade or orange juice (or salt and a lemon for tequila - just like their older siblings and parents).
Another popular party drink with local teens is shots of Fireball (cinnamon whiskey) chased with Coca Cola. With a 33% ABV and at 66 proof, it's similar to other flavored spirts, but about 20% lower than true whiskey. The hangover can still be a bad one.
"Mixies". Alternatively, instead of taking shots/swigs and chasing them, local youth mix hard liquor in red solo cups (one or two shots worth - and sometimes more). Popular mixies are Vodka with Sprite, Lemonade or Orange Juice or Fireball Whiskey with Coca Coca. These, of course, can be sipped slowly (or not).
Alcohol Soaked Gummies. Gummies aren't just kid treats or cannabis edibles. Google the term and recipes for Drunken Gummy and Boozy Gummy Bears (vodka) and Rummy Bears (rum) pop up. The flavors mask the alcohol taste. After many hours of soaking the
gummies in alcohol, they can double in size and "the longer they sit, the boozier they get". However, therein lies the reason these aren't as popular with youth - it simply takes to long. And our sources tell us it doesn't always work. Still, if you see an enlarged gummy bear that looks like this image to the right, it's not just kiddie candy. And it’s hard to smell the alcohol.
The Good News? First, not all kids drink! Though the fact is that a majority of teens, just like us parents, will use alcohol - sometimes to excess but hopefully with lessons learned - and like most of us, they will come out just fine. And there's so much parents can do to counter all the messaging and social media marketing out there. Despite social media influencers peddling the party lifestyle, alcohol and other drug products to our kids, we parents are still their biggest influence. (That's why we chose our name!) So take advantage of Be the Influence resources on this website under "What Can Parents Do", including:
And read these past BTI Blogs to get the facts, understand the health impacts of alcohol on adolescents, how youth drinking differs from adult drinking, and get parenting tips, including on what is known as "harm reduction":
Most importantly, know there is no one right way to parent - one size does not fit all and there are no black and white rules. So trust your gut. As the parent, you are the one who best knows your child!