By Joe Borders,
Marriage and Family Therapist
August 8, 2018
Addiction in Advertising: How Advertisers Speak Directly to Addicts
The alcohol and tobacco industries have a long history of advertising directly to those who are addicted to, or prone to being addicted to their products. They depict situations in their ads that speak directly to their target audience and play on their hopes, fears, wants, and needs. In many ways this is similar to the political term “dog whistling” where a target group hears a message that most other people don’t. Although this is common to the alcohol and cigarette industries, it does happen elsewhere. There has been a Diet Coke commercial making the rounds recently that almost seems like a parody of this. I’ve been needing to do an analysis of this for months. Here it is.
It may sound weird to those who haven’t experienced this themselves, but I have met quite a few people who were addicted to soda and/or more specifically diet cola of some kind. Why is this a thing? In order for something to be psychologically addicting, it has to be pleasurable in some way. Soda has got this part down. Its sweet, bubbly, refreshing, and we’re practically bathed in commercials that liken drinking a soda to finding an oasis in the middle of a desert.
The interesting thing about soda, from an addiction perspective, is all of the physical cues that play into it. When working with addicts you see that they are not just addicted to their thing, but a lot of the process of using that thing; sights, sounds, textures, etc. play a role in the addiction. It’s not uncommon, for example, for heroin addicts to experience “needle fixation”, where they actually become addicted to the act of injecting itself. In cases like this, some who are in recovery will inject other substances just to be injecting something.
Sodas have all kinds of things associated with them that can be addictive in this way. there’s the sound of cracking open a soda can, the feeling of fizz when you drink it, the act of chugging something. All of these things can be addictive in their own right. Commercials that advertise sodas pull on these addictive qualities as a way to pull you in.
Have you seen this commercial?
Take a minute to stop and think about what you just watched. How many “dog whistle” moments did you spot? This kind of advertising is interesting to look at because in some cases it can almost be tantamount to subliminal advertising. When thinking about this ad and reading everything I’m about to say about it, try to imagine this is a beer commercial, because I’m about to draw some comparisons.
Here’s what we’ve got:
Let’s start out with the fact that this commercial begins with her kicking back a cold one. This is something you see a lot in alcohol commercials. It sets the tone and connects you with the character, almost saying “see this thing I’m doing? You and I have this in common. We’re buddies”. As she’s walking down the street she toasts another person drinking a coke. This further serves to distinguish the actor (and you) apart from everyone else who is clueless to this awesome thing we’re sharing.
Notice nobody else is moving on the street she’s walking down. The first other person we really see any movement from is the other person drinking a Coke. This further drives the communication that those outside of this club we’re a part of live dull, boring lives because they don’t drink this thing we’re into. As she encounters the other person with a coke, other people start to enter the scene and start moving around. This suggests that the connection with the other person, through a Diet Coke, brought a release of tension / relief into the world. Something often experienced by alcoholics. If you missed this, you should watch it again….it’s almost creepy how still everyone is until the two Cokes meet.
The script in this commercial can be broken down into:
- “It makes me feel good”
- “Life is short”
- If you’re in the mood just do it
- “Because I can”
These are all arguments that basically amount to “You don’t need a reason to do this thing, you like it, and you should do it whenever you feel like it.” The wording and delivery also communicate that there is an expectation that others in your life might try to stop you from drinking Diet Coke, and you should respond to this by asserting your autonomy. Again, further building a connection between the addict and the character, where the addict is a member of a club that others in their life just won’t understand. The tone that the actress sets with her delivery even goes so far as to communicate that everyone else can go screw themselves.
About the Actual Product
I also really need to say a couple of things about this product in general….I honestly really don’t know if they intended this as some kind of dog whistle for alcoholics…..but there are A LOT of things going on with this line of sodas that point in that direction. Look how tall the cans are! They resemble 24 ounce cans of beer! They’re skinnier….but that plays into the whole “diet” thing.
If you are an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic I strongly advise caution when considering drinking these sodas! They have an odd….burning sensation that resembles the burn you get after drinking alcohol. I got several of these the other day and was reading through the ingredients to figure out what caused this….and I think I remember reading there was some kind of pepper in there?
This concerns me because aside from the actual alcohol content, drinking one of these tastes and feels a lot like drinking a rum and coke or similar cola based cocktail. Even if there isn’t any alcohol in it, this can be dangerous for recovering alcoholics. Like I said in the beginning of this article, addiction has a lot to do with context and the brain picks up on things like this.
You know those times when you think about your favorite food, start craving it, and find yourself needing it? Things like this soda can set off that kind of a response in alcoholics. I’ve worked with numerous recovering alcoholics who have talked about the experience of walking through an alcohol aisle in a store and feeling a slight burn in their stomachs or slight intoxication feeling. When your brain associates things with drinking, exposure to them can actually physically get your body into a place where it expects that alcohol is coming. This can be dangerous for the recovering alcoholic.
So I’m not sure what they were intending with these sodas….but I’m almost thinking they were intentionally trying to market to alcoholics. Interestingly, 3 out of 5 of the pages I looked at when researching for this article contained ads for alcohol. This could just be coincidence or maybe this is what they are marketing to.
If you’re addicted to something, one of the most important things for you to learn is to become familiar with your triggers. through being familiar with your triggers you can plan for them, not be as surprised when they come up, and you can become more aware of why you are triggered when it happens. If you are addicted to soda, this commercial is playing on your triggers. If you didn’t recognize your triggers you would just find yourself craving soda and either drink one, or be frustrated about your soda addiction. Now that you know more about this you can be more mindfully aware of the times you crave soda and how advertisers are trying to hook you.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, therapy may help! Take a look at some of the addiction therapists in our area. SacWellness.com has over 190 therapists located in the greater Sacramento area.
About the Author
Joe Borders is a marriage and family therapist located in Roseville and Sacramento. He is primarily a sex positive gender therapist, but also specializes in working with couples, teens, addiction, and the LGBTQ community. Joe is also the owner and founder of SacWellness. You can find out more about him by visiting his sacwellness listing or by visiting his website: therapy and counseling in Roseville and Sacramento