Do you lie about your products?
Hey, booze industry peeps. A question: When you’re selling, how much is it OK to misrepresent your product? A little bit? Maybe a medium amount? Or a lot? And what would that look like? Can you say it earned an award it didn’t or name a grape or hops that’s not in it? Maybe quote a yield level it wasn’t cropped at or tell a false story about the malting process or water source? My guess is that most of us would say, “Zero. None is OK. You can’t do that.” We wouldn’t have our wine as part of our daily lies.
Then we’d list the reasons: it’s unethical; the short-term sale isn’t worth the long-term reputation damage; it doesn’t help the winery, importer, reseller, or consumer. We would say we have to keep our industry’s integrity, our customers’ trust, and our businesses sustainable. And besides, it’s just wrong. We’re not liars.
So, what about broadly reporting about alcohol-related information? Is it OK to share misrepresented findings or misinterpret them ourselves, however unintentionally? The truth is, you may be posting lies if you don’t think before you share.
Then don’t lie about health information
When it comes to sharing reports about alcohol and health, we have an equal responsibility to do so accurately. Now, in this glorious industry we call adult beverages, we love to have fun as much as anyone and arguably really know how to do it. But one problem we face is that of competing responsibilities: that is, in wanting to celebrate our subject, we shouldn’t encourage unhealthy choices. With the explosion of information-sharing through social media and blogs (and thereby less journalistic rigour), the line can get a little blurry.
There’s a light side
Much of life should be playful and fun. Laughing relieves or replaces stress and improves our health. Socially, humour lets us poke fun at ourselves and serves as meaningful commentary. And alcohol is loaded with opportunities for this kind of playfulness.
For example, we have any number of memes, from bottle-sized wine glasses to saying like, “I love to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put some in the pot.” And there’s the lifestyle site called Mommy Needs Vodka. How you respond to this whimsy speaks to your own mental, physical, and social health. It’s a very real truth that part of the population has experienced very real problems and does not find these funny. They would even call them damaging as Lauren Stevens bravely admits in the Huffington Post. We’re not saying it’s not OK to see the humour. Just be aware that how you feel about it should be a signal to make sure you know why.
And a darker side
While some of these memes can be problematic (what if mommy really did “need” vodka, and baby was born with FASD or grew up with self-esteem issues or became an addict themselves), an even more serious problem is how we report and share alcohol and health information.
Dozens of studies and claims address health benefits associated with drinking different alcohols in varying amounts. While many of the original scientific studies report their findings more or less responsibly, it’s what happens to them through social sharing that’s at issue. Take this one: A Glass Of Red Wine Is The Equivalent To An Hour at the Gym, Says New Study. Now, we can’t blame Everyday Citizen for giddiness over a headline that validates their lifestyle.
But we can be upset with Melissa Bell who wrote the article. She begins talking about resveratrol and the health benefits associated with this compound found in red wine, dark chocolate, red grapes, peanut butter, and blueberries. But then, she says:
the university’s study was carried out on rats, not humans. Further… The amount of wine necessary to have enough resveratrol to completely replace the benefits we get from exercise is well beyond human limits. (emphasis mine).
So, Melissa. Which is it? Is a mouse-sized glass equal to an hour at the mouse gym or isn’t it? And what specifically does it do? Oh. Right. Your motivation for clicks and shares decides your sensationalizing title and wins your internal ethical battle… if there was one.
Where do we fall?
Where we come in, fellow industry, is to not celebrate this bullshit. If we share it, we should challenge it. First of all, and according to the evidence the writer herself provides, the title is a lie. Second, it’s damaging. As authorities in our industry, it’s our job to make sure we understand the source and substance of these reports and interpret them accurately for those who listen to us.
Disturbingly, I saw industry peers share the following idiocy: 10 Hidden Health Benefits That Make Whiskey Drinking A Good Habit To Have. The re-poster included comments to the effect of, “Whoo hoo! I knew it! Drinking whiskey is good for you!”
Let’s look closer. This piece lives on the website www.sipdark.com, which is a whiskey accessories site run by people with a vested interest in more people drinking more whiskey. Among the benefits, they list “Stay Slim”, because of whiskey’s lower calorie count versus beer and wine. Another is “Ease Stress and Anxiety,” in which they encourage a shot of whiskey after a hard day to calm your nerves. Then, even more unbelievably, they go on to list the health hazards of stress. I… just… can’t… even…
Guess what, guys (I’m assuming they’re guys):
- Drinking whiskey doesn’t keep you slim.
- YOU CAN’T TELL PEOPLE DRINKING ALCOHOL IS A HEALTHY WAY TO DEAL WITH STRESS.
What’s the harm in a little fun?
“What’s the big deal?” you may ask. Or maybe you think, “This says more about you than it says about most of us in the industry. Lighten up, dude.” But I can’t. The big deal is that promoting and celebrating this inaccurate information is the same as lying about your products.
When we don’t do the work to understand the data and challenge its presentation, we encourage dangerous behaviour and spread the very louse that will erode our industry’s integrity, customers’ trust, and business’ sustainability. We keep hearing that “words matter” and about the misinformation highway with all the fake news. Do you want to be the one who buckled up, went along for the ride, and contributed to fiery destruction?
How do we tell the difference?
Those headlines are fun! They whisper partial truths, too. And they validate the greatness that is our industry. But the devil hides in the bent truth, not the outright lie. There are a few things to look for to raise your red flags. One is whether the reporter explains results associated with specific behaviour in a population versus direct cause and effect. That is, there’s an important difference between saying “There is a correlation between moderate consumption of red wine among men and women between the ages of 24 and 65 in the UK and lower risk of heart disease,” and “Drinking red wine prevents heart attacks”.
The first statement identifies an association or correlation. It implicitly acknowledges that other factors may influence the outcome in the study and control populations. These factors include relative wealth, education, eating and exercising habits, and genetics. The second statement claims a cause and effect that appears linear but doesn’t actually exist.
It’s also important to consider the source of the reporting. We saw the journalist’s and retailer’s motivations in stark light in their versions above.
Is there a middle ground?
GoodMorningAmerica.com posted an article a few days ago about National Drink Wine Day. In it, it talks about the possible health benefits of wine. However, it also explains that:
Various peer-reviewed medical literature on evidence-based medicine has shown that trials have had contradictory findings on coronary heart disease and it is unclear if wine is more cardio-protective than other alcohol types.
So, they raise the idea of wine’s possible health benefits, but balance it with the admission of the unknown. We should apply this standard to anti-alcohol reporting, too. While scientists have been able to show cause and effect and unequivocally state that “Drinking alcohol can cause seven types of cancer,” that’s different than saying “If you drink alcohol, you will get cancer.”
Alcohol, religion, sex, money, and… information
I think of information and alcohol like I do about money, religion, or sex. It’s not the thing that’s good or bad, but how we use it. Money isn’t to blame for gambling addiction. Religion isn’t the reason people treat others poorly. Sex isn’t the cause of infidelity or abuse. It’s the energy these stir and how we guide it in ourselves.
As industry representatives, it’s part of our job to celebrate our passion but in a way that’s a balanced part of a healthy life. We can use the same brains we’ve used to learn so much about our subject to think critically about reporting we see, and we can use our mettle to challenge it.
Disagree? We would love to hear from you.