Alcopops

Sweet, sexy, and deceptively alcoholic. Almost a third of CHOICE’s teenage testers couldn’t detect the alcohol in a Vodka Mudshake.
 
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  • Updated:26 Feb 2008
 

01 .Introduction

coloured alcopops

In brief

  • Alcopops are very appealing to younger people, and contribute to underage and binge drinking.
  • In CHOICE's trial, 24% of the 18-19-year-olds thought there was no alcohol in the alcopops they tasted.
  • The regulation of alcopops marketing — and of alcohol more generally — doesn't effectively protect teenagers. Parents need to get involved and keep the lines of communication open.

Many health and advocacy groups are concerned about the influence of premixed alcohols — known as ready-to-drinks (RTDs) — on teenage alcohol use.

An RTD is part spirit or wine and part non-alcoholic drink, such as milk or a soft drink, bought in a premixed format. They’re also known as 'alcopops' or 'designer' drinks.

Research shows that alcopops are extremely popular with underage drinkers, and the drink of choice for underage binge drinkers.

They’re the most commonly consumed form of alcohol among 12–17-year-old girls, are considered an initiation drink by many young people, and have been described by industry and concerned groups alike as 'bridging' or 'gateway' beverages for less experienced drinkers, who aren’t yet used to the taste of alcohol.

Their popularity among younger teenagers has been attributed to their trendy packaging and sweet flavours, which can mask the taste of alcohol. As one journalist quipped, an alcopop is "a fizzy drink which allows alcohol to be introduced into the bloodstream while bypassing the taste buds".

With the above concerns in mind, we set out to find how easy it would be for young people (of drinking age, to keep it legal) to detect the presence of alcohol in alcopops and other alcoholic beverages, using a blind taste test that included a mixture of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2007 but is still a useful guide today.


Video: Alcopops

Some alcopops hide their spirits so well that young drinkers can't even taste them.

 
 

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Do you think this beverage contains alcohol?
  Yes (%) No (%) Unsure (%)
Alcopops (322) 69 24 7
Soft drinks (324) 9 85 5
Wine (81) 100 0 0
Beer (81) 100 0 0
 


As the table above shows, many of our teenage participants had difficulty detecting alcohol in the alcopops — only 69% thought they contained alcohol, compared with 100% correctly identifying the beer and wine as alcoholic drinks.

teenager testing alcopopsAlmost a quarter of the teenagers couldn’t taste the alcohol in alcopops. They found it most difficult to identify it in Vodka Mudshake (which looks and tastes rather like a chocolate milkshake), particularly the males — only 51% thought this beverage contained alcohol.

Bear in mind, these were 18 and 19-year-olds with some experience drinking alcohol. It’s likely younger drinkers would find it even harder to tell.

According to one participant, "That’s what these are great for — because they do taste like soft drink, it’s good for kids that have no alcohol experience whatsoever, so they don’t have to taste the alcohol and they don’t realise how drunk they’re getting."

And in terms of appeal, alcopops were the most popular alcoholic beverage in our trial — 60% of participants liked their taste (not far behind the 77% who liked the soft drinks), compared with 25% who liked wine and 38% beer.

They’re even more appealing when you’re younger, according to our 18–19-year-olds. Said one, "I used to drink all of these when I was a bit younger ... Like when I was at school."

Alcopop producers use colours as shortcut cues to flavour expectations — green for apple or lime, pink for guava and red for raspberry, for example. But colour itself is also a major part of the appeal of many alcopops for teenagers. An advertorial for Bacardi Breezer describes deep raspberry red as the "hot glamour colour this season" for nails, lips, heels and clutch bags, and goes on to say, "All you need to complete your hot, berry delicious look is another fashion accessory — the new Raspberry Bacardi Breezer."

According to one of our teenage participants, "Wine obviously doesn’t have a good colour to it but you see some of these alcopops and you go 'oh, it’s pink!'"

How we tested

girl testing alcopops78 teenagers aged 18 and 19 years old, roughly half of them male and half female, took part in our taste test of a range of drinks that included beer, white wine, four kinds of soft drink and four alcopops — 10 in total. Samples were unbranded and each participant received them in a different order. Each participant tasted all 10 samples.

The alcopops used in the taste test were:

  • Bacardi Breezer Raspberry (4.8% alcohol)
  • Ruski Lemon (4.8%)
  • teenagers testing alcopops Vodka Cruiser Passionfruit (5%)
  • Vodka Mudshake Original Chocolate (4%)

For each sample, participants were asked if they thought the drink contained alcohol, and whether they liked the taste and found its colour appealing.

The teenagers also completed a survey about their drinking habits and awareness of alcohol advertising. Sixteen also took part in focus groups, discussing alcohol consumption in general, and alcopops more specifically.

Every day in Australia, young people are exposed to high and increasing levels of alcohol advertising and marketing, which research shows can have an influence on teenage drinking.

91% of our taste test participants recalled seeing alcohol advertising in the past month. The most recalled advertising was for beer at 43%, followed by alcopops, 16%. Most alcohol advertising was last seen on television, 71%, followed by billboards at 56%, pubs and clubs at 49%, bottle shops at 39%, magazines at 34% and 14% on the internet.

In relation to alcohol advertising, there are two complementary industry self-regulation codes: the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Advertiser Code of Ethics (which applies to all forms of advertising) and the Alcoholic Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC).

In addition, many of the larger companies have their own marketing code of practice. The codes give guidelines for advertising with specific reference to children and adolescents, but there are some gaps — a major one being the internet.

The ABAC extends to websites owned or endorsed by alcohol beverage brands. But at present there’s no stipulation as to what kinds of third-party site are deemed acceptable for online alcohol ads. And the youth-appealing internet is a surefire way of reaching a young audience.

Alcopop advertising

While alcopop producers may argue they’re exclusively aiming at the 18–25-year-old market, it’s not surprising that the marketing still manages to reach millions of impressionable young teenagers.

We found promotions for alcoholic products, including the alcopop WKD ('wicked') Original Vodka Blue, for example, alongside promos for the latest teen movies and Nancy Drew games on girl.com.au — an online girls magazine that 'addresses issues which face today’s youth'.

This is at odds with a message on the website of WKD drinks owner, Beverage Brands, which states: "The marketing of our brands is strictly targeted at the 18-plus age group."

After CHOICE contacted WKD, the item was removed from the website.

Alcopop marketing in particular draws heavily on pop-culture references and young, hip images to create a sense of identity and individual style, clearly appealing to the young, fashion-conscious consumer.

girl participating in alcopops testThe producer of Vodka Cruiser, for example, describes its drinker as someone who 'blends in with their peer group'. You’re invited to 'get on and ride the wave with this bright, bubbly and fun brand'. And you’re assured that 'Vodka Cruiser is still the fashion RTD for the 21st Century'.

Alcopop marketing cleverly uses the knowledge that young people today choose their drinks to reflect who they are and who they want to be. As one of our female participants told us, "I think with girls, if they see another girl that’s 18 or 17 [drinking alcopops], and they’re 15 or 16, they think it’s cute ... like the bottle."

In Australian society, drinking alcohol is part of the 'rite of passage' to adulthood and is an important part of the social life of many young people and adults. But levels of underage drinking are high.

The most recent national survey of Australian secondary school students found that by the age of 13, 80% had tried alcohol. This number increased with age to around 86% of 14-year-olds and 96% of 17-year-olds. Ten per cent of 12-year-olds were current drinkers, meaning they’d drunk alcohol in the week prior to the survey, and this increased to reach a peak of 49% among 17-year-olds.

And it’s not just their age; the way they’re drinking is also a cause for concern. Around 20% of all 16- and 17-year-old students (and around 40% of current drinkers in these age groups) drank alcohol at risky levels — that’s seven or more drinks in one day for males and five or more for females (usually referred to as binge drinking).

Why does it matter? Many people probably think experimenting with alcohol is a normal part of teenage development. However, apart from the risks associated with being drunk (such as accidents), there’s a growing body of evidence that early onset of alcohol use, including binge drinking, puts people at increased risk of problems later in life, including adult alcohol dependence, illicit drug use and psychiatric problems.

How much are alcopops to blame?

It’s clear from CHOICE’S test that the use of sweet flavours reduces the natural resistance many teenagers have to the strong and (to many of them) unpleasant taste of alcohol.

In fact it’s long been argued that alcopops entice youngsters to begin drinking at an earlier age and that they’re associated with more frequent drinking and binge drinking in young people. And the way these products are marketed hardly deters young drinkers from aspiring to drink them.

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the growth of this product category in the Australian market has been fast. Between 2004 and 2006 there was a 21% increase in the availability of alcopops, and estimated consumption of alcopops by people aged 15 and over increased by around 16%.

Some studies have found alcopops to be partially responsible for the observed increase in total alcohol consumption in adolescents. Contrary to this, though, a recent review of the published literature on the impact of alcopops on adolescent drinking found that evidence for these associations is scarce.

It’s difficult for parents of young teenagers to know what approach to take with alcohol.

Do you introduce your children to alcohol in an attempt to educate them to be discerning about drinking or, alternatively, encourage them not to use alcohol until they reach the legal age? Is it appropriate to provide your teenager with alcohol to take to a party? Is there something you can do to help your teenagers avoid alcohol-related harm?

Unfortunately, there’s little in the way of official guidelines for parents to follow. However, a government report conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies concluded that there’s a number of key messages for parents on the topic that might help.

Key messages

  • Delaying the onset of alcohol use is associated with more moderate and less risky patterns of use in adulthood, while early onset is related to more risky patterns of use in the long term.
  • Parental attitudes and norms towards alcohol can play a considerable role. For example, when parents showed disapproval of alcohol use, their children were less likely to use alcohol. Conversely when parents were tolerant or permissive, their children were more likely to consume alcohol.
  • Once teenagers have started drinking, enhanced parental monitoring appears to be a key factor in minimising risky alcohol use. However, this first requires there to be good parent-teenager relationships — simply asking more questions of your teenager may be more damaging.
  • Once a good relationship is in place, clear and consistent rules regarding alcohol use and maintaining open communication are key.

More information

DrinkWise Australia
Drug Info Clearinghouse (Australian Drug Foundation)
Reach Out!
The Salvation Army

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