When Will We Stop Laughing At Alcohol Memes? And When Will Brands Stop Sharing Them?

Last night, as I fell asleep, I looked at a meme from Parents Magazine joking about kids counting the number of drinks mom has.

This morning when I woke up and checked my phone, the first thing that I saw was a meme by Good Housekeeping — a meme with images from “Elf” and a joke about how much wine mom has to drink to deal with the kids being home for summer.

Another day, another joke about women and alcohol. 

It's almost as if we can't live without the stuff. 

***
For the past six months, I’ve been gathering examples of what I call the “alcohol-as-lifestyle” narrative. The examples are all over, from big women lifestyle brands like Parents and Good Housekeeping, to marketing by fitness studios, T-shirt companies, greeting card makers, and a list that goes on and on.

Each time I share an example I try to provide context for why content creators, brands, editors — and individuals — should rethink the stories they tell around alcohol. I try to do it in a way that is positive while also holding up the facts and supporting dialogue. 

Specifically, I write about the startling data around the rise in alcohol consumption and women, as well as binge and heavy drinking. The rise is occurring among demographics of women that brands like Parents and Good Housekeeping serve.

I try to write about these issues intentionally and respectfully, with the perspective of both an editor and writer (20 years in media and seven at a major woman’s lifestyle title) and as a person who once bought into the narrative that yes, mommy needs wine. For me, like countless other women, that belief system and cultural messaging was part — not all — of what contributed to my escalated use. As I got sober, I saw the gaps between our worlds: between a public world that celebrated alcohol as the norm to make it through life, and the private world, where people struggled and felt so alone when they couldn’t “handle” its effects.

Today, more and more women are examining their relationship with alcohol. The stigma around examining these issues has lessened, thanks to many groups advocating for a more public discourse around addiction and the issues surrounding it. Not everyone has to be addicted, or label themselves as such, to discover that a drug or behavior that once worked for them no longer does. Many women who don’t identify as addicted or having an alcohol use disorder are simply saying, “This no longer serves me.” 

Alcohol is just one part of what women like me are examining. I don’t have a single friend who isn’t grappling with what she puts into her body and how she moves her body and how she spends her time caring for family, making a living, trying to make a difference. In a world of chaos, of vitriol shouted across the internet, we’re all just trying to stay afloat and hopefully, to connect.

This is what I believe these memes are about. Underneath the attempt at humor is content that women relate to. For instance, with Good Housekeeping’s Elf meme: it’s not really about wine. It’s about how come summer, mom is the one who is often trying to figure out how to create an entertaining and educational break for her kids, while she continues her daily responsibilities, be it working inside or outside the home or both, which is the likelihood.

It’s tougher to create content about the fact that the world isn’t set up for parents who are trying to manage their responsibilities. Memes about childcare and economic realities are a bit more complicated. And perhaps that’s not the mission of women’s lifestyle media.

Or perhaps it is. 

***

I’ve written previously about why women lifestyle media continues to publish alcohol-as—lifestyle content. It’s inexpensive, gets eyeballs, gets engagement. I recognize the enormous challenge of anyone working in the media in 2018. Our industry has gone through an unprecedented time of change, with no one really able to say how things will look in one, five, or ten years. 

I do believe that as the media continues to shift, as the democratization of content brings new and diverse voices to the table and helps them build at scale, there is an opportunity for decision makers across the landscape to take a look at the messages they share around alcohol. As I say daily: I’m not a prohibitionist — everyone has the choice to drink or not drink. This is not about a photograph of a glass of wine with a meal (though frequency of alcohol references is something to consider).

This is about the messaging around alcohol — specifically that alcohol is a necessary part of a person’s life, that it can be consumed without consequences, and that it's all a big joke. 

I’d like to see titles like Parents and Good Housekeeping, run by two of the biggest media companies (Meredith and Hearst), lead the way in providing more clear editorial direction around messages that normalize, celebrate, and glamorize alcohol consumption.

It seems like the right thing to do, particularly in light of the facts about how many women in their target audience are struggling, and with the country's growing addiction epidemic. I'd go one step further and say, even if a reader isn't struggling with alcohol, there's a chance there's something else significant she is grappling with today. Where is the solution that doesn't come in a bottle?

At the same time, I recognize there are women who don't have issues with alcohol. There are women who can have a glass of wine at dinner or a beer at the beach. Again, I’m not suggested we demonize that, and there’s a careful line here. But this is the role of leadership: of editors who work across content platforms to make sure that content, tone, voice, and messaging is right for a brand.

Critics say, “Well you’re the one with the problem,” or “Lighten up — it’s just a joke.” It’s fair to say that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. But it can happen to anyone (though some of us are more predisposed than others). If you are lucky, you’ll never experience the devastating impact that alcohol can have. But for many of us — millions, and millions more family and friends — we do. 

***

Some days I get tired of looking at all the examples. It’s a bit depressing to see how deeply engrained this alcohol narrative is. I am far from the first to raise these concerns (see: Q&A with Ann Dowsett Johnston and the work of many others listed here.) Why would brands change their positioning if it works for them -- specifically if it contributes to their numbers? 

At times, I wonder if I am yelling into a void, an impossible chasm. 

But then I get a note from a woman who shares her heart and says that that the surfacing of these examples, the careful analysis and the reckoning of complex messaging is helping her. 

Some readers write to say that they thought they were the only ones who felt angry or bothered or sad when they see a constant stream of messages celebrating alcohol at every corner. Some say that they have been considering their relationships to alcohol and aren’t yet ready to quit, but considering it. Some day that they are social drinkers who don’t plan on stopping, but are thankful for the perspective.

Sometimes readers send notes that read "This is day one for me -- again". Their voices are vital too, because they are a window into what life looks like for so many women, every single day, who are struggling in the face of a monster that can kill them. 

And that’s why I’m passionate about this work. To help be a bridge between the women who are struggling in silence, and the culture makers who turn out headlines and memes and stories that, when added together, add up to canvas that says: “Just drink it away.”

But what if there was another way? 

What if other storytellers joined me?

How can we tell better stories together? 

Asking for a friend. For millions of them.