Controversial

Selling Thanksgiving Spirit (In Liquid Form)

You know what we’re talking about when we talk about “Blackout Wednesday,” right?

Heck, yeah — Sept. 16, 1992, when the British Conservative government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after it was unable to keep the pound above its agreed lower limit in the ERM! George Soros made bank by short-selling sterling!

Actually, nope — that’s Black Wednesday, and it is no cause for celebration in England.

The similarly named Blackout Wednesday is an unofficial American holiday, and it refers to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when the confluence of college students visiting home and the general holiday spirit of consumers of all ages north of 21 (one at least hopes) leads to one of the biggest sales days of the year for bars and liquor stores.

This is just one of the ways that the sale of alcohol factors into the holiday season. In 2014, alcohol sales were estimated to make up over $220 billion, with $40 billion of that coming in November and December alone, according to Richard Hurst, principal at New World Consulting (cited in the above article that his daughter wrote — true story). The numbers are largely attributed to an uptick in year-end holiday parties and celebrations, which boosts the sale of liquor to consumers, as well as wholesalers supplying bars, caterers and events companies.

But Blackout Wednesday is, by many measures, the kickoff event to this boom season for beer, liquor and wine retailers, as well as bars and nightclubs. There are a number of ways the bar industry and those that serve it prepare for Blackout Wednesday in particular. As FSW points out, there is a focus on promoting drink specials, providing live music, expanding food menus to include small plates and more seasonal items, offering premium-priced VIP access and more.

Some may balk at the idea of alcohol and overindulgence being tied to a quintessentially American holiday like Thanksgiving, but intoxication in America has a long and storied past with a tradition of overindulgence at its core. A rather eye-opening look at the history of drinking in America by Bloomberg reveals that between 1790 and the mid-1820s, alcohol consumption by Americans 15 and older was the equivalent of seven gallons of pure alcohol a year, the majority of which was consumed by white men (that, plus the invention of mayonnaise … so much for white male Americans to be proud of). Historian William Rorabaugh, who compiled these statistics, notes, “This rate of use is among the highest ever recorded in any society and is close to the human body’s physiological maximum capacity for intake of alcohol.” By comparison, per capita alcohol consumption in the U.S. today is the equivalent of 2.26 gallons of pure alcohol a year.

So … better? Sure, we’ll say “better.” Hindsight and all that.

By the late 1800s, Americans were coming to their senses, and by 1920, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, ringing in 13 years of prohibition. We have had a long love-hate relationship with the bottle in this country that, in some ways, continues today. However, much like the temperance movement that led up to the era of prohibition, many bars and brands are shying away from any overt promotion of Blackout Wednesday — and with good reason.

While the holidays, and this kickoff to them, means big business for the alcohol industry, it can come at a high cost. According to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), Thanksgiving not only kicks off the holiday season but the season where drunk driving-related fatalities spike as well.

In a report released by Alcohol Monitoring Systems, the leading provider of alcohol testing technologies for the criminal justice industry, it is shown that, in 2014, highway fatalities caused by alcohol rose from 31 percent to 40 percent over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The bar and nightclub industry is sensitive to these issues and does a lot to educate and promote within its own ranks about responsible serving. In recent years, apps like BeMyDD and ride-sharing services like Lyft have been getting in on the action and partnering with local establishments to offer incentives for helping imbibers get home safely. This use of technology makes good decisions that much easier and removes a barrier to overindulging for revelers unsure how they’d otherwise get home.

This digital approach to responsible drinking seems in line with catering to tech-savvy millennials, that most coveted of consumer demographics, who also seem to be particularly taken with this annual day of intoxication. A quick scan of the posts that appear under the hashtag #blackoutwednesday is evidence enough of that, with young tweeters reveling in the promise of upcoming debauchery. (True to the millennial stance related to doing anything, what’s the point in getting hammered beyond comprehension if you’re not going to share those plans with strangers on the Internet?) Millennials are projected to spend nearly $32 billion this holiday season. How much will they drink? That remains to be seen.

Liquor brands have flocked to social channels, eager to engage with millennials in their techno-natural habitat. A close look at the social presence of any major beer or liquor brand reveals that they have become savvy users, employing digital media tools to craft rich and engaging stories around their products. However, a big obstacle for brands looking to engage with consumers online is that there are a slew of regulations and restrictions that vary by country. While some brands have opted to simply ignore regulations (classy!), many others have had to get creative to convey a compelling message across social channels.

The holidays bring out a slew of promotional spots for everything from beer and wine to hard liquor, all looking to claim a place at your holiday festivities. And many of them have been reacting to an increasing preference among millennials for small-batch artisanal liquors that offer “inclusive exclusivity,” according to a report from Time. Forty-three percent of millennials surveyed said that craft beer tasted better than mass-produced brands, and — backing that preference up — a whopping 15 percent of millennial alcohol spend goes to the craft segment, compared to less than 10 percent of the Gen X and Baby Boomers’ spend.

One brand that seems to have nailed this is Jack Daniel’s. The Tennessee whiskey proprietor maintains a particularly active and creative social media presence, punctuated by a number of “small-batch” brands it has spun off from its mainstay No. 7. With nearly 5.5 million fans on Facebook, 61,000 on Instagram and 145,000 on Twitter, JD is currently running a number of promotions, including: a Frank Sinatra-inspired giveaway on Instagram running through the holidays that asks fans to share pictures of their pets (because the first thing inebriated people think of when they think of Frank Sinatra is “his love for dogs?”), a pop-up “Motel 7” event campaign on Facebook, as well as “Operation Ride Home,” which provides rides home from the airport to military service members and their families during the holidays. Suffice to say, Jack Daniel’s has a lot going on (doubly impressive for an organization whose distillery resembles a haunted insane asylum).

What you won’t find on any of the brand’s social channels is a single reference to Blackout Wednesday or the upcoming holiday season. Interesting.

For a savvy, industry-leading brand with large ad budgets, a seemingly endless coffer of creative ideas and a real ear to the ground around the wants of the millennial generation, it seems a conspicuously obvious miss to not have recognized one of the biggest drinking nights of the year.

That or, like many proprietors of liquid spirits, Jack Daniel’s is well-aware that “Blackout Wednesday” — given its very serious dark side — is something to try to profit from, without calling too much attention to it specifically.

Fitting, in a sense, as those college kids and other millennials that make it through their Blackout Wednesday festivities will, on Thanksgiving morning, likely be trying to keep a low profile as well, due to the hangovers.

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