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Analysis: Gender stereotyping in spirits marketing

#MeToo and the fight to combat sexism in wider society is being reflected in the spirits industry, with moves afoot to ban stereotypical advertising and promote inclusivity. But there is still more to be done to put an end to gender bias in spirits marketing.

Discussions around gendered marketing in spirits have come to the fore

Over the last few years, the collective conversation about gender equality has shifted up a gear. In 2017, the worldwide Women’s March brought attention to issues such as women’s rights, healthcare reform and workplace parity. Meanwhile, discussions about sexual harassment in Hollywood, governments and big businesses catapulted the #MeToo movement into the mainstream.

The issue has become more prevalent in the drinks world as brands face a crackdown on gender stereotyping in advertising, with a number of initiatives and regulations unveiled in the past 12 months.

In December, UK advertising watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) announced plans to introduce new rules that mean adverts “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence”. The regulations, which will come into effect on 14 June 2019, have been widely applauded.


Major brands have been criticised for their portrayals of gender in the past. Historically, it wasn’t unusual to see sexualised representations of women in spirits marketing, and images of scantily clad pin-ups are still used by some today.

Past examples include Bulgarian brand Flirt Vodka, famous for its series of raunchy posters, while sex has also driven publicity for Lust Vodka, Skyy Vodka, Evan Williams Bourbon, Bacardi rum and Cabana cachaça. “The whisky industry has come a long way since the advertising from the 1960s and 1970s, when we saw advertising being polarised as either ‘drink this and you’ll be successful’ or ‘sex sells’,” says Georgie Bell, co­-founder of #OurWhisky, a movement that aims to highlight the diversity of whisky drinkers. “Some of that sort of marketing still comes up in advertising today, but less and less so.”

While the ASA and CAP’s pledge to combat limiting notions of gender makes a bold statement, the ban will not extend to all forms of stereotyping. “Not all gender stereotypes are necessarily a problem,” says Ella Smillie, gender stereotyping project lead, CAP. “It’s perfectly legitimate for advertisers to feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles. Where there’s likely to be a problem is where that ad stresses that’s the only option available for people of that gender, and that they’re not able to do anything else.”

A key area of debate when it comes to equality in spirits is the idea of gendered tastes. Elizabeth Finn, managing director of international design agency Cowan London, notes that “historically, many sweet, fruity or creamy mid-­proof spirits were targeted at women”. Examples of such products include Heaven Hill’s flavoured whiskey brand Raven’s Lace Peachberry Whiskey, Brown-Forman’s low-­abv spirit brand LBD and, more recently, Pomp & Whimsy gin liqueur, which has been “tailored to the female palate”.


It’s not just specific products that are being assigned a gender, either – entire alcohol categories have been coded as either male or female too. Tom Harvey, co-­founder of alcohol marketing agency Yesmore, says the pink gin category “feels like it’s a movement to target women through a somewhat basic way of using a colour that is stereotypically seen to attract women”.

Last year, several companies unveiled new products to coincide with Women’s History Month in March and International Women’s Day (8 March). One of the biggest women-inspired launches was that of Jane Walker – a limited edition iteration of Johnnie Walker Black Label. However well intentioned, the launch backfired with a number of consumers and commentators arguing it was patronising and unnecessary, likening Jane Walker to the rumoured release of ‘Lady Doritos’.

“What was intended to be a celebration of women was interpreted by many as Johnnie Walker trying to appeal to a female audience, and generated much criticism,” says Finn. Nevertheless, the brand was also praised for donating US$1 from every bottle sold to organisations championing women’s causes.

Smirnoff campaigns for gender equality in music

There are a number of industry-­led initiatives seeking to shake up the narrative of gender in marketing. In 2017, consumer goods company Unilever created the Unstereotype Alliance in 2017 in collaboration with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, as well as firms including Diageo, Mars and Alibaba.

Brands such as Smirnoff and Skyy vodka have taken equality a step further by creating new campaigns centred around the theme of empowerment. Smirnoff’s Equalising Women campaign, created in partnership with Spotify, aimed to double the number of female headliners in electronic music by 2020. Meanwhile, Skyy vodka launched its Proudly American initiative, which juxtaposes famous phrases from American history with “powerful” imagery of people who celebrate diversity. Smirnoff, the world’s largest vodka brand, also recently partnered with social media and entertainment publisher Ladbible on a campaign to “champion greater inclusivity”, called Free To Be. The year­-long partnership aims to “promote empathy and discussion” towards minority communities with a focus on nightlife.

And parent companies are not afraid to show solidarity with the gender equality movement. UK distiller Diageo joined the Free the Bid campaign, which aims to promote equal opportunities for women working in advertising. Bacardi, meanwhile, launched its Spirit Forward series, a collection of seminars designed to empower women in leadership roles. Many of the world’s biggest brands are “rethinking the way they depict people and stereotypes”, according to CAP’s Smillie. She says: “Consumer research is telling them that people don’t really relate to these tired old tropes anymore.”

Two people keen to champion diversity in the spirits industry are Bell and editor Becky Paskin, who launched the #OurWhisky movement in March 2018. One of their main aims is to challenge the misconception that whisky is a ‘man’s drink’. “We want to inspire others with the message that it isn’t a man’s drink, and break down that social construct,” says Bell. “We started with it just being women and men, but actually it goes a lot deeper than that. We’re talking about diversity in general.”


In order to generate greater change, Yesmore’s Harvey believes brands must move away from the “easy” approach of targeting one gender and should “be thinking more about how to appeal on a deeper, more emotional level, striking with their beliefs of interests”. As an alternative strategy, #OurWhisky’s Bell thinks brands should “tailor to different drinking occasions” in their marketing.

Cowan’s Finn stresses that “targeting women with feminine brands or female celebrities doesn’t work”. She says: “How about doing more to celebrate the real people behind the spirit brands, whether that’s a re­telling of the founders’ and distillers’ stories that so many brands have in abundance, or a celebration of the real distillers and ambassadors these brands have today. Whether they be men or women, their stories would in many cases provide a perfect marketing opportunity.”

The Spirits Business highlights the role of women in the spirits industry throughout its March 2019 edition, out soon. 

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