Booze Brands Are Making Low-Alcohol Drinks So Millennials Won't Embarrass Themselves

Young people want to get drunk without ending up a casualty of their friends' Instagram stories.

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May 4 2018, 8:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Casey Holford

Recently, you may have noticed a growing concentration of hazy, high-contrast, extra-colorful photos in your Instagram feed, and wondered to yourself whether your friends and family have all abandoned their iPhone Xs in favor of those little yellow and black disposable cameras that made frequent appearances at your Smirnoff Ice-fueled high school sleepovers. In actuality, you're probably just seeing pictures taken with an app called Huji that mimics the nostalgic effects of a light-leaky plastic lens and 35 millimeter film. Apologies to the teams of overpaid geniuses who spent decades figuring out how to put an 11-megapixel camera on your pocket computer; it turns out that modern technology just doesn't look as fun as a crappy $8.99 Kodak throwaway. What's more carefree than getting trashed with your mates and snapping a bunch of nonsense selfies to giggle at later?

But wistful as we may be for the days of analog, there's one important feature of a disposable camera that apps like Huji lack: the assurance that whatever ends up getting developed will most likely remain in the custody of the photo-taker. And it's the ease of distribution of our images—especially of our less-than-flattering moments—that is steering some young people away from alcohol, according to a new report.

Earlier this week, an article in Bloomberg explored the growing appeal of weak beers to young drinkers in Australia. Last month, AB InBev even released a lower-alcohol version of Corona in Australia to meet the demand for drinks that allow you to socialize and imbibe without getting too drunk, too fast.

Why the hell would people want to drink super-weak beer?, you might be wondering. According to global analysts in the spirits sector, the answer has more to do with Instagram than with, say, high price points for limited-run IPAs.

Jonny Forsyth, a global drinks analyst at Mintel Group Ltd., told Bloomberg that, to put it bluntly, people don't like looking like sloppy, lazy-eyed village drunks in the photos and videos that inevitably end up in their friends' Instagram and Facebook feeds. If you're stumbling around or making out with a fellow partygoer on the sofa at a house party, there's a decent chance that someone else in the room may want to make you part of their "story." And that's a harrowing prospect for self-conscious would-be party animals.

"They really link food and drink and alcohol consumption with how they look," Forsyth said, regarding young consumers. “"You can’t underestimate the impact of technology on this."

In Australia, beer consumption has plummeted over the last few decades. During that same time period, alcohol consumption in the US has increased, but Americans face similar insecurities regarding scrutiny on social media. Earlier this week, news spread that Ketel One is launching a lower-alcohol version of its vodka in order to meet the demand of—ah yes, here comes that word—Millennials, who are more health- and image-conscious than previous generations.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and instructor at UC Irvine Extension and Fielding Graduate University, tells MUNCHIES that there are two overwhelming problems in the intersection of drinking and social media: the risk of embarrassing drunken photos being posted by others, and the risk of sharing embarrassing things yourself, whether it’s harrowing footage of a drunk night out or the dreaded drunk text to your ex.

"Before social media, embarrassing behavior, while likely gossiped about, was visually undocumented. Therefore, the embarrassed person was unlikely to have to face up to their behavior in any meaningful way," Dr. Rutledge says. "Social media increases accountability for one’s actions. People like to control their public image on social media since it is permanent rather than ephemeral. Embarrassing 'moments' are no longer moments, but posted in perpetuity for all to see without engaging in damage control."

Photo via Flickr user Felipe Alonso

This doesn't mean, of course, that we no longer want to party. Drinking is still a deeply embedded part of our culture, and remains synonymous with the idea of "fun." And perhaps lower-alcohol drinks can permit us to have our beer and, uh, drink it, too—without waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, rushing to delete your reputation-damaging, 17-segment Instagram story.

"Young social media users have to be very aware of what other people—friends, family members, even future employers—might think about them," adds Erin Vogel, a postdoctorate scholar at the University of California, San Francisco who studies the effects of social media on the behavior of adolescents and young adults. She doesn't necessarily see it as a bad thing for young people to, say, not get blackout drunk every weekend, even if it is out of fear of embarrassment—although, of course, it's all relative. "This awareness could actually be healthy, if it motivates them to make less risky choices. However, I'm concerned that today's teens seem to be living under a microscope."

So is lower-alcohol beer and booze the answer to this quandary, one of fighting for one's right to party while also living with constant anxiety over whether you look like a mess to your digital audience? Well, it could be one option for finding a balance, especially since we're not seeing a lot of other solutions right now.

"Whether empirically documented or not, [the demand for low-alcohol drinks] satisfies a consumer need—the ability to drink without getting too drunk. Public humiliation is a risk that will be more palpable to young people than any longer-term health or behavioral consequences," Dr. Rutledge says. "Young people have an inherent and biological inability to inaccurately calculate future risk about things like drunk driving, for example, overestimating their ability to control a vehicle while under the influence. Conversely, they have a very real sense of the implications of social media’s immediacy and spreadability since that is a primary means of communication and self-representation and is not a future risk but a current one."

"Young adults are at a time developmentally when they are most interested in looking good, so looking bad has meaningful social consequences."

So cutting loose may mean sipping on a Corona for show instead of for the buzz. Or, next time you're cross-faded, you could always just grab a real disposable camera instead of your cell. And Dexter, get that damn flash out of my face.