We are now in the thick of the silly season, and last week I saw something particularly silly. My 17-year-old son had gone and bought himself a bottle of VB Thirst and was proudly showing it off to the family.
For the unaware (which was me two weeks ago) VB Thirst is a men’s fragrance. It is infused with VB’s own hop extract and apparently “embodies the very essence of hard work”.
When it was released in 2020 it became the fastest selling men’s fragrance Australian history, with more than 25,000 units sold in three days. The gimmick was in its packaging – the fragrance comes in the iconic brown VB stubby.
My son is not even old enough to drink it, yet he’s thrilled to be dousing himself in it.
This grates on me.
My husband and I have had those conversations with the kids about underage drinking, we did not hand them beers or turn away and say “no big deal” if we did catch them.
“Harmless” products are a strategy
Yet the brands still reach them (usually through humour or a quirky gimmick), get them familiar with their product and prime them for the day they do turn 18.
VB is by no means alone here. We’ve all seen the gimmicky products with the alcohol brands plastered across them. We’ve seen the T-shirts, the towels, bucket hats, the eskies, the surfboards, the snowboards, the beach cricket sets and plenty of others.
We’ve also seen those hilarious products for babies. The onesies with an alcoholic brand across the front, or – even funnier – baby bottles in the shape of a whiskey bottle.
But in a country where intergenerational foetal alcohol spectrum disorder continues to devastate communities, can someone fill me in on what the joke is here?
We’re led to believe that these branded products are harmless gimmicks, that they are “just a bit of fun”.
Targeting our kids
It is not harmless. This is brand extension, a calculated marketing strategy that has become more common as alcohol brands have come under increased scrutiny for their advertising across the traditional and digital media.
The sole purpose of these products is to expose as wide an audience as possible to the brand, regardless of their age.
When VB Thirst was released in 2020 it was marketed as an appropriate gift for children and young people to purchase for Father’s Day. There was a complaint to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme about brand extension targeting young people.
The producers of VB, Carlton & United Breweries, argued that their fragrance was intended for adults and that they had not breached the Code.
When their fragrance is sitting in Chemist Warehouse across from Arianna Grande’s latest perfume, who exactly do they think is going to be exposed to it?
The complaint was dismissed. This was hardly surprising given the ABAC Scheme is partly administered, and wholly funded, by members of the alcoholic beverages industry.
Choose your gifts wisely
There are now many longitudinal studies that link young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising to the age they begin drinking. If they have already started drinking, alcohol advertising has been shown to influence the amount they drink.
We know the disastrous effect that excessive drinking has on young people, along with putting them at risk of accidents and injuries, it also damages their long-term emotional and mental health.
The latest campaign from the Alcohol. Think Again campaign tells us that 80 per cent of parents are saying no to providing their teenagers with alcohol. Which is great news and to those who are part of that 80 per cent I would say – well done, stay strong. I know it is not easy.
But we need to be even more vigilant in preventing those brands from entering our homes and gaining a foothold in our children’s psyche via seemingly innocuous products. I encourage you to start now.
Stocking fillers are everywhere, so choose yours wisely. Don’t buy the whiskey gift pack that comes with branded glasses or branded barbecue tools or that “attractive” branded apron. Don’t give out the bourbon branded chocolates. Be clear with relatives about what gifts are appropriate for your home and why.
Keep having those conversations with your kids and point out exactly what these alcohol brands are doing. Let them know they are being targeted.
As for that bottle of VB Thirst, I told my son it stinks.
Helen Mitchell is the Chief Officer for Growth & Innovation at HOPE. She has a background in nursing and health promotion. She’s a passionate advocate for public health measures.