Seduction in the Supermarket

By vernacula 02/20/18
Guest Assistance High Large.jpg

Recovering alcoholics are told over and over that they should avoid “slippery places” where temptation waits to pounce. Good advice, assuming you don’t need to eat, feed your kids, or wash your dishes. In recent years, supermarkets have become as slippery as ice smeared with olive oil, especially in those states—seventeen and counting—where any large store can sell hard liquor.

In 2011, a ballot initiative brought booze into the grocery stores of Washington State, where I live. Before that, liquor was sold in state-run stores, which voters didn’t seem to mind, rejecting a 2010 initiative that sought to privatize liquor sales. The 2011 initiative was much better funded—Costco seeded the campaign with $22 million—and better prepared to fend off opposition.

SKEPTICAL VOTER: Won’t the state lose revenue?
ALCOHOL INDUSTRY LOBBYIST: Goodness no! By “no,” I mean “yes,” of course, but we’ll even things up by paying the state some big fat fees!
SKEPTICAL VOTER: Who’s “we”? Consumers?
ALCOHOL INDUSTRY LOBBYIST: Ha ha ha ha! Funny voter, of course not! “We” are merchants and distributors!
SKEPTICAL VOTER: But won’t we, I mean you, just jack up the retail price to—“
ALCOHOL INDUSTRY LOBBYIST:Well, maybe a penny or two here and there. A small price to pay for getting rid of state liquor stores, a Prohibition Era Monopoly.
SKEPTICAL VOTER: And won’t it be easier for teenagers to—“
ALCOHOL INDUSTRY LOBBYIST: Prohibition Era Monopoly! Prohibition Era Monopoly! Prohibition Era Monopoly! Prohi—
FORMERLY SKEPTICAL VOTER: Stop! I’d rather see our highways littered with mangled teenaged bodies reeking of supermarket vodka than allow a Prohibition Era Monopoly to endure for one more instant!

Something to know about alcohol lobbyists: every time a person does anything other than cheer the triumphant march of their product through the livers of America, they bring up Prohibition. And look how cleverly they do it here! The state was selling, not prohibiting, liquor (and selling, when you think about it, is kind of the opposite of prohibiting), so they add “era” and hope no one knows what “era” actually means. Then they tack on “monopoly” to seal the deal because we all know that monopolies are evil except when they’re Facebook or Google. Those alcohol lobbyists are geniuses. Remember that.

Anyway, in their haste to rinse the putrid dregs of Prohibition from their mouths with a fresh swig of supermarket whisky, many voters failed to consider key issues such as whose money would actually pay those big fat retailers’ fees and whether selling Bacardi next to the cottage cheese would send a healthy message to children. Surprise! Liquor prices went up—from the highest in the nation to w-a-y beyond the highest in the nation. Surprise! Kids began thinking alcohol wasn’t so bad for them after all. Surprise! Teenagers drank more and ended up in the ER more often. Surprise! Many Washington voters regretted passing the privatization initiative. But I’m not going to discuss those issues today because the full data aren’t in yet. I’m just going to offer an alcoholic’s view of grocery store liquor sales.

Let’s pause to remember how much an alcoholic’s view matters. Though the alcohol industry likes to pretend its best customers are moderate social drinkers, patterns of consumption indicate otherwise. Remember what Professor Cook said: if the heaviest-drinking tenth of the population drank like the next-heaviest-drinking tenth, the alcohol industry would lose 60 percent of its revenue. In other words, regular inebriates drink almost three-fourths of the alcohol sold, and the industry works very hard to keep our business. Here are some of the ways they do it in grocery stores.

They use lighting. Elsewhere in the store, illumination is bright and flat, whether from center-mounted fluorescent strips or from full-spectrum can lights. In the liquor section, it is dimmed and high-contrast. At my local Safeway, when I turn the corner from the dairy aisle into the liquor aisle, ambient light drops 42 lux. An alcoholic friend calls it “mood lighting,” and she is exactly right. But the darkness must be valuable, right? After all, it’s costing retailers plenty, as shoplifting of alcohol has skyrocketed since privatization. But let’s go on.

Within this darkened, shoplifter-friendly retail space are bright spots, often supplied by small track lights aimed at the bottles, which are polished until they gleam. If you don’t believe me, look at them the next time you’re in the store. Then walk over to the juice aisle and compare those bottles. Dull, dull, dull, even the sparkling apple cider bottled like champagne. Dim ambient light and bright bottles is Bar Lighting 101. Consciously, you know you’re in the supermarket, yet, at some level, your brain registers “bar.”

But you don’t realize it. When I first spotted the lighting shift, I asked other abstinent alcoholics whether they had noticed it, and they all said “no,” despite having experienced unexpected cravings in the grocery store. After I explained what I had seen and measured, many said, “Okay, yeah, now that you mention it,” but continued to blame their cravings entirely on themselves, not on anything they might see.

Or hear. In Washington, Safeway has an ingenious way of seducing shoppers who try to avoid displays of alcoholic beverages. Because liquor is such an alluring target for shoplifters, Safeway keeps it in locked cases decorated with fairy lights. When customers want a bottle, they press a button that sends an announcement over the store’s PA system.

“Guest assistance,” says a warm male voice, “in premium liquor.” The voice is appealing. The words are appealing. “Guest,” not “customer” or “annoying customer” or, to the stock boy trying to get some action in the produce section, “cock-blocking intruder.” Then “assistance,” an alluring notion for customers used to climbing shelves and swatting down soup cans with spaghetti boxes. “Premium” is the quality we all long for as we survey harshly-lit rows of Rice-A-Roni and cheap breakfast cereals. The actual liquor is no more “premium” than anything else in the store, but that’s irrelevant. This message is all about desire, not reality.

Anyway, some “guests” needing “assistance” in “premium liquor” are impatient. They press the call button again and again. “Guest assistance in premium liquor . . . guest assistance in premium liquor . . . guest assistance in premium liquor . . ..” I have heard the announcement more than 40 times in a ten-minute visit to Safeway. There’s no “guest assistance” button anywhere else in the store, even though several departments (I’m talking to you, deli counter) could use one. In fact, all other announcements over the PA are in numeric code, so you have to ask yourself: why is this one uncoded? Why alluring? Why designed for endless repetition? Why audible in every corner of the store—and even in the parking lot outside?

Because it’s advertising. In fact, it’s subliminal advertising, as most people don’t consciously hear the announcement when they’re thumping watermelons or reading nutrition labels or stopping the kids from cart-ramming other customers. Two things are germane about subliminal advertising. First, functional magnetic resonance imaging reveals that subliminal advertising, though not consciously perceived, lights up regions all over the brain. Second, when a person faces a choice, subliminal advertising can influence that choice. In other words, lifetime teetotalers who half-hear “guest assistance in premium liquor ” will not suddenly purchase a fifth of Old Granddad, but abstinent alcoholics may. This “guest assistance” button is a classic example of a dipsogen, something engineered to generate alcoholic craving.

Right now, I guarantee that many readers think I’m making a fuss about nothing. Get over it, they mutter. Alcohol is everywhere, and alcoholics just have to deal with it. What I’m trying to point out is that alcohol’s ubiquity is not an inevitable fact of modern life, like electricity or potholes. It’s a calculated saturation engineered by businesses seeking profits, enabled by politicians seeking donations, and encouraged by consumers seeking convenience. What it’s designed to do is sell booze, and most of that booze—almost three-quarters—ends up in the bloodstreams of people who drink too much. Most of that booze, in other words, hurts people.

Nonetheless, the alcohol industry has thoroughly sold the idea that excessive drinking is solely an individual responsibility. Manufacturers, distributors, retailers, advertisers, lobbyists, and policy-makers accept no fractional blame for the staggering costs of alcohol abuse, and no one has managed to land a smudge of accountability on their Teflon collars. Compare the tobacco industry, whose similar denials spurred relentless media criticism, lawsuits, regulation, and public repugnance for the product.

I’m not suggesting that alcoholics are completely passive victims of industry predation; I’m just trying to point out some of the ways an industry manipulates a vulnerable, sometimes dangerous, population purely for profit and without regard for consequences. I’m trying to tell other alcoholics that some of the reasons maintaining sobriety is hard have less to do with how diligently we “work our program” and more to do with sneaky little bits of commercial sabotage that might catch us off-guard when we’re tired or anxious or depressed.

Compare the marketing of cigarettes. In the grocery stores that sell liquor, you can also buy cigarettes, though you could be forgiven for not knowing that because they are generally kept in a tiny case about four feet high between the last cash register and the exit—or behind a counter with the lottery tickets. Case or counter, you have to go out of your way to buy smokes. There are no track lights or fairy lights in the vicinity, no seductive dimming of ambient light. No one polishes the cigarette packs until the cellophane gleams. And, although the case is locked, there is no button to cue “Guest assistance in premium tobacco.” Ex-smokers can shop for groceries without overt blandishments from their former drug of choice.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Where I live, the wellbeing of tiny minorities is protected and promoted, as it should be. We have laws mandating ramps, rails, lifts, and audible signals for a small number of disabled citizens. We have trigger warnings to avoid distressing a small number of traumatized individuals. In Seattle, people have all but stopped wearing fragrance in deference to the small number of people with chemical sensitivities. Yet our communities don’t even discuss how they might assist (or at least not actively sabotage) their alcoholic members’ attempts at sobriety. It doesn’t occur to them that there’s anything to discuss, and their cheerful oblivion, as they tuck bottles of Grey Goose into their grocery carts along with the kale, offers silent testimony to four generations of brilliant propaganda.

Vernacula blogs about addiction and sobriety at, where you can see a version of this article with footnotes.

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