Booze is 10% ethanol, 90% marketing so maybe it’s time to try Dry January | Arwa Mahdawi

I blame Gwyneth Paltrow, myself. The actor turned entrepreneur may not have been the first celebrity to launch a business empire, but the rise of Goop seems to have coincided with a craze for side hustles among the glitterati. Entertainers aren’t content with just entertaining any more – they’re all business moguls, too. Lil Nas X has a skincare line; Selena Gomez has a makeup brand; Jessica Alba has a baby product company; Kim Kardashian sells performance underwear.

While skincare has become a popular celeb business, the biggest grift is probably still booze. By one calculation, there were fewer than 40 celebrity-affiliated booze brands in 2018; now there are reportedly more than 350. I won’t list them all but, to give you a taste, Graham Norton is shilling wine, the Chainsmokers (remember them?) have a Tequila brand, Jamie Foxx has a bourbon, Cameron Diaz has launched a “clean” wine brand that is vegan-friendly. (And thank God for that, eh? I’d been getting really tired of all those meaty wines.)

Even Alex Jones, the Infowars conspiracy theorist, is rumoured to be releasing a bourbon – called Conspiracy, of course. It’s a sign, if ever there was one, that the celebrity booze brand trend is officially out of control.

Want to know why celebs are so keen on the alcohol industry? As someone who once worked on an A-list celeb’s spirit brand back in my advertising days, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: booze is 10% ethanol and 90% marketing. You think you have a refined taste in alcohol? You think you know what you like? Nah, you’ve just been successfully marketed to. You’ve just been successfully manipulated.

Vodka is the prime example of this. I always think it’s funny when people insist they have a favourite vodka because, unless it’s truly bottom-of-the-shelf stuff, it’s all quite similar. In fact, until 2020, the official US government definition for vodka was something “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color”. That definition has now changed to concede that vodka can have character, but I maintain that there is very little difference between brands.

In fact, the Planet Money podcast once sent three samples of vodka (Grey Goose, a homemade version, and a very cheap kind) to a lab to be analysed. The lab said that they were all basically the same but that the cheapest version was probably best because it contained slightly less of a compound that causes allergies.

Grey Goose, by the way, is an incredible case study in how marketing can shape your tastes. In 1996, a liquor baron and branding genius called Sidney Frank (he’s the reason Jägermeister shots became a thing) decided he wanted to invent a new vodka. How would he steal market share from Absolut, which was the biggest brand on the market at the time? He’d just sell something, he decided, that was double the price. And he’d get it from France, because people associate luxury with France. They sourced a nice-tasting vodka but the reason Grey Goose became the “it” vodka for a while was largely because it was very expensive.

Maybe you’re a wine drinker. Maybe you think you’re too sophisticated to be influenced by labels and price tags. Maybe you are – but studies show that the average drinker can’t really tell the difference between cheap plonk and the fancy stuff. And guess what? If you tell someone the wine they’re drinking is expensive they’ll tend to enjoy it more.

A 2008 study, for example, found that people’s enjoyment of wine was affected by their perception of how much it cost. When drinking a wine that they’d been told was pricey, participants in the study actually had increased activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, part of the brain that is associated with pleasure. The study notes that it “provides evidence for the ability of marketing actions to modulate neural correlates of experienced pleasantness and for the mechanisms through which the effect operates”. In English? That translates to “we’re all sheep who need to be told what we should like by marketers and price tags”.

I’m not saying all this to make the vodka aficionados and wine snobs among us feel bad, by the way. I’m saying it because if, like me, you’re looking for some motivation to do Dry January or cut down on booze in 2023, then let this be a lesson to you (and me). Your drink of choice isn’t always influenced by your taste buds alone. The advertising industry has a lot to do with it. Cheers!

Candice Cearley

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