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The cooler illusion.

The Cooler Illusion

Amy Jobin, a high school student in Illinois, says, "Lots of my friends drink wine coolers at parties. They're a kind of sophisticated, intiate drink. They're not quite as expensive as beer, and they have a sweeter taste."

Mike Bruni, a junior at Purdue University, was surprised to find out that coolers are higher in alcohol than beer.

"Everyone knows [coolers] have alcohol, but they don't necessarily take drinking a cooler as seriously as they would a beer," he says.

These impressions are not accidental.

Coolers look like sodas, they taste like sodas, and they're marketed like sodas. And, if the alcoholic beverage industry has its way, millions of consumers--especially women and teenagers--will believe that coolers are only slightly more intoxicating than sodas.

In fact, most wine, beer, and liquor coolers have more alcohol than a beer or a glass of wine, more calories than a soda, and, in some cases, nary a drop of real fruit juice. Yet the alcoholic beverage industry has created a slick marketing campaign designed to perpetuate "the cooler illusion." Their clever strategy has eight key elements.

1. Soda Look-Alikes. Coolers are packaged to resemble sodas. They're poured into two-liter plastic pottles, 12-ounce glass bottles with short necks, and 6-ounce boxes with straws attached (usually, fruit juices marketed to kids are packaged this way).

Some coolers, such as Matilda Bay, come in "four-packs," a tactic that not only makes them look more like a soda, but also ensures that people will buy the product in quantity.

Like Kool-Aid, coolers come in rainbow colors. A drop or two of FD&C Yellow #5 helps to make one cooler, Cactus JAck, look unlike anything you'd find in a liquor store.

2. No Alcohol Taste. Remember Fizzies, those tablets you dropped in carbonated water? That's what most coolers taste like -- sticky-sweet and carbonated, and in some cases, perfumed with fruit essences.

The sweetness disquises the alcohol taste, making it easier for people who have rarely or never consumed alcohol to gulp down a bottle or two.

3. Easy Access. Coolers aren't sold just in liquor stores. In many states, they can also be sold in groceries, drug stores, and general merchandise stores such as K-Mart.

Coolers have also become ubiquitous in restaurants, including chains such as Fuddrucker's and Chi-Chi's. Will the burger giants be next?

4. They're Cheap. One reason coolers are so appealing is that they don't cost much. You can pick up a "four-pack" of Bartles & Jaymes or a two-liter botle of Sun Country Cooler for $3 to $4--less when they're on sale. Recently, a "Yago Cooler Pak" (three coolers) on sale at a California K-Mart was priced at $.69.

5. Spotty Ingredient Labeling. Want to find out what's in the cooler you're buying? If it's a wine cooler with less than 7 percent alcohol, then you're in luck. Wine coolers are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means that they are required to list in gredients on the label.

But other types of coolers--malt- and spirits-based--do not have ingredient labeling. People with allergies to sulfites and artificial colorings and flavorings, beware. These coolers are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, an agency that has--by its own admission--no public health expertise.

In the last few years, BATF has sought to gain authority over all alcoholic beverages, including wine coolers. Should that happen, what little ingredient labeling now exists--on wine coolers only--would disappear completely.

6. Fruit Juice Fantasis. Many companies imply that their coolers are brimming with fruit juice. They glibly give their products names such as "White Mountain Orange Cooler" or "Matilda Bay Original Fruit Cooler," and they plaster bottles and carrying packs with colorful drawings of fruit.

In fact, many coolers--Seagram's Natural Peach, La Croix's Strawberry, and 20/20's Orange & Other, to name just a few--contain no fruit or fruit juice at all. Instead, they contain only fruit flavorings (sometimes natural, sometimes artificial).

Other cooler companies substitute cheaper juices for the more expensive fruit juice that the product is named for. Riunite's Royal Raspberry, for example, has grape juice, but no raspberry juice.

7. Calories Galore. Many consumers think that coolers are low in calories, in part because they're marketed as "light," fruity beverages. But the average calorie count is 200, as compared to a 12-ounce cola's 160. Drink two or three coolers, and you'll blow a meal's worth of calories--on a carbonated mixture of sugar and alcohol.

8. Alcohol De-Emphasized. Among the worst of the cooler illusions is that coolers are low in alcohol. They're not.

Coolers average 6 percent alcohol by volume. To compare, beers average about 4 percent alcohol, and most table wines range between 10 and 14.

But because coolers typically come in 12-ounce bottles (the same as beer and soda), the amount of alcohol in a serving is generous--more than is in a mixed drink such as a gin and tonic that's made with one ounce of liquor.

Tipsy Teens. While it's clear that millions of underage kids are drinking alcohol regularly, no one knows exactly what they're drinking. Last year, a national survey of 500,000 elementary school children focused attention--for the first time--on attitudes and perceptions commonly held about wine coolers. The study found that:

* Only 21 percent of fourth-to-sixth graders think of wine coolers as a drug.

* Twenty-six percent of fourth graders think their peers have tried wine coolers. By sixth grade, the percentage rises to 42 percent. Among 7th-to-12th graders, 80 percent think their peers have tried wine coolers.

* The belief among children that drinking alcohol every day "could cause great harm" decreases with each succeeding grade, from 26 percent in the fourth grade to 17 percent by the sixth grade.

Meanwhile, some drug treatment centers are already worried. Harry Kressler, director of Matrix Community Services, an organization that runs therapeutic community programs for teens in Tucson, Arizona, says girls are drawn to coolers. "They like the taste," he says. "The word 'cooler' evokes a refreshing, light beverage that's pleasant, airy, and stimulating. That's ironic, because alcohol is a central nervous syste depressant."

Kressler thinks that in the future, more teens will buy coolers "as an alternative to beer" because there are "so many ads pushing them." Asked if he thought coolers are creating a new wave of alcohol abuse problems, Kressler replied, "the problem -- teenage alcoholism--is already there. Coolers are just another choice of packaging."

Diane Purcell, of Chicago's Parkside Medical Services, part of a large chain of alcoholism treatment centers, thinks that one reason coolers are a hazard for kids is because "they're so easy to drink. You can go from lemonade to a lemon cooler in one easy step. You don't have to acquire a taste for alcohol."

Purcell thinks that cooler ads are powerfully appealing to teens. (Most cooler advertising is on television.) The ads "usually feature good-looking young guys and girls having a great time,c she notes. "The message is that you canht have fun at a party unless you're drinking coolers."

Some parents, too, are worried about coolers. "I wasn't even aware these things were available until I found out my son started drinking them when he was 15," says Carl Fisher of Arlington, Virginia. "But I really got angry when I found my five-year-old listening to a cooler ad on a teeny-bopper radio station. Why is it legal to market this stuff to kids?"

The net result of all this marketing guile hasn't been measured yet. Cooler are a new product (the first product hit the market in 1981), and there is not much data on who's drinking them, and in what quantities. So far, the federal government has done little to investigate the impact of the cooler phenomenon on Americans' drinking problems--let alone warn consumers that coolers are as potent as beer, wine, or mixed drinks. But there is growing concern that the sweet, spiked sodas are being widely consumed by young people.

Cool-Aid. Few Americans realize--and even fewer are willing to acknowledge--that underage drinking is widespread.

Yet year after year, alcohol use among teens far outstrips that of any other drug, including cigarettes, marijuana, or cocaine. National surveys report that the average child takes his or her first drink at the age of 12. [1] Smaller, regional studies suggest a younger age--eight years. [2]

Other studies show that by the 12th grade, 93 percent of seniors have tried alcohol, more than 66 percent have consumed it during the past month, and 5 percent say they drink alcohol almost every day. [3]

The results of all this imbibing are predictably serious: In 1985, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that about 4.6 million teenagers experience "serious alcohol-related problems."

The Ads. The alcoholic beverage industry gives the "healthful" image of coolers added sex appeal in upbeat, fast-moving television ads. Canandaigua's recent Sun Country Wild Jamaican Rum Wine Cooler ad features the theme, "The Hooter Cooler.c

The ad opens with scenes of a woman in a "teddy" (a kind of body suit) arching backward in front of a refrigerator, and then on a beach with a male companion. The lyrics say, "The wild, wild taste of Sun Country Wild Jamaican Rum Wine Cooler--open it up and pour it on."

Other ads are less heavy-handed, but in the same "sex sells" tradition. One Seagram's Golden ad featured several months ago, for example, showed Moonlighting's Bruce Willis picking up two women at a bar. The take-home message of these ads: Drink coolers and you too can be hot.

Cool Profits. The alcoholic beverage industry is not about to let coolers cool off soon. The beverages may be the new kid on the block, but they're no longer just a fad.

Although the first commercial wine cooler, California Cooler, was released only seven years ago, the market was worth $1.7 billion by 1987.

For wine producers, whose sales of table wines have been declining, coolers are particularly lucrative. LAst year, wine coolers accounted for a full 25 percent of the industry's sales.

Although cooler sales have recently slowed and even declined slightly, mounting advertising expenditures are proof that the alcoholic beverage industry hasn't given up on the market. Last year, the industry spent $.09 per bottle on advertising, compared to $.015 per bottle for beer. That makes coolers the most heavily advertised alcoholic beverage of all.

Dispelling the Illusion. Several actions could help control and reduct the problems caused by coolers:

1. Coolers should be sold only with other alcoholic beverages, not with juices and soft drinks.

2. The federal government should mount educational campaigns in cooperation with schools to teach young people that coolers have more alcohol than beer and many table wines.

3. Cooler labels should clearly state, "an alcoholic beverage--not for sale to anyone under age 21."

4. Alcohol content in coolers should be limited to two or three percent.

5. Congress should enact legislation that would apply to all alcoholic beverages, not only coolers. Legislation is needed to require warning labels and calorie, ingredient, and alcohol content labeling, as well as higher excise taxes and equal time in radio, T.V., and print media for health messages to balance alcohol ads.

As things stand now, consumers don't have a fighting chance when it comes to sorting out cooler fact from fiction. The "cooler illusion" is keeping Amy Jobin, Mike Bruni, and everyone else from making intelligent choices about buying--and drinking--them.

[1] Use of Licit and Illicit Drugs by America's High School Students, 1975-1984: DHHS Pub. No. (ADM) 85-1394.

[2] J. Drug Ed. 14: 195-205, 1984.

[3] Johnston, L.D. et al. Drug Use Among American High School Students, College Students, and Other Young Adults: National Trends Through 1985, National Institute on Drug Abuse (Rockville, MD, 1986).
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Title Annotation:slick marketing for wine coolers
Author:Montgomery, Anne
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Aug 1, 1988
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