Advertising in the Wine Industry Needs to Get Real

Back in the 1990s the milk industry came up with an ad that included the catchy phrase, “Got milk?” The hope was that the campaign might reverse the decline of dairy-based beverage consumption. Referring to that ad campaign, voices in the wine industry hoped to inspire a got-milk moment that might reduce the waning consumption of wine. Although such a desire might have been made with the best of intentions, in reality it was an ominous wish.

The original “Got milk?” ad campaign was dreamed up by Goodby Silverstein & Partners on behalf of the California Milk Processor Board and included the catchy phrase touted by popular cultural figures who wore milk mustaches. The multimillion-dollar effort was memorable, but ultimately failed to stem milk’s decline in consumption. The ad’s focus was also predicated on health claims that “milk does a body good,” which was not necessarily true then or now. The ad was directed toward a broad demographic—including children—which is just not appropriate when talking about a regulated intoxicant such as wine.

In many ways, the wine industry is tripping over its own feet with no clear understanding of who or what it has become in recent years. For the last few decades, the American wine industry has witnessed explosive growth and popularity. Thousands of new producers have entered the marketplace, while enormous sprawling companies have become even bigger. Consumers have come to value excellent quality and have shown a willingness to pay high prices for it.

As a result, the American wine industry has been on an extended honeymoon, with some having come to expect the heyday to last forever. But, as any married couple can tell you, the initial euphoria eventually wears off. What is left is either a realization that the match wasn’t good to begin with or that, if it is to work, slow, steady and honest is the most effective long-term strategy.

To thrive in the wine market of the future, it is important to look beyond health claims, hype and handwringing.

The “Got Milk?” ad leaned heavily on attempting to link the consumption of dairy to better health outcomes. In fact, many products have attempted this trick, largely because it works. And perhaps because of Americans’ puritanical roots, it seems that we are particularly susceptible. The problem is that attempting to link any product, especially one such as alcohol, to health claims is doomed to fail.

Once the wine industry began promoting wine as akin to a health elixir, it was just a matter of time before data would begin to show the opposite. And that’s just what has happened. In recent years, there has been a steady stream of new studies that show that the consumption of alcohol is linked to everything from cancer to shrinking brain size. The most recent data suggest that those under the age of 40 should avoid alcohol altogether.

Instead of distancing themselves from what were spurious health claims in the first place, however, some in the wine industry are doubling down, either attempting to disprove or discredit the new studies or to emphasize the few studies that show even the most tenuous links to improved heart health.

Why even go there? The he-said-she-said dynamic being set up regarding wine and health comes off as just another source of conflict in a world that’s becoming inundated with such strife. Engaging in such dissension causes the drinking of wine to lose its inherent appeal as a beverage enjoyed with food alongside friends and become just another avenue for conflict.

Many in the wine industry need to step back and take a deep breath. They need to stop making any claims that wine is even remotely “healthy” because doing that creates an environment that is misleading, confrontational and shortsighted. Besides, such a strategy is particularly unattractive for those of the younger generation who are already shifting away from wine.

I get that these ideas might lead some in the wine industry to wring their hands in worry. However, the solution to the wine industry’s current dilemma isn’t a got-milk moment. The industry needs to drop the health claims, stop any divisive marketing efforts and embrace the product’s inherent historic role as an adult beverage that is not at all like anything poured on cereal or that leaves a cute mustache on the lips of those who consume it.

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