Abstract: Consumer Reeducation and Industry Rehabilitation: Seagram's Advertising and the Muddled Meanings of Moderation after Repeal

Lisa Jacobson


After the repeal of Prohibition, American vintners, brewers, and distillers faced a monumental consumer education challenge. Creating brand identities and raising brand awareness was the relatively easy part. Alcohol producers also had to teach Americans the etiquette (and imperative) of responsible drinking to bolster the legitimacy of their still morally suspect industry and products. My paper illustrates how Seagram, in both its institutional and brand advertising during the 1930s, championed responsible drinking but left the definition of moderation sufficiently vague to encompass drinking behaviors that could easily cross the boundaries of moderation. Seagram endeavored to create a respectable image, but it did so with a wink and a nod. Seagram's advertising campaign illuminates how the ethic of individual responsibility—so aggressively championed by purveyors of licit psychoactive commerce and fattening foods—became the dominant frame for evaluating how Americans should manage the pleasures and perils of potentially harmful commodities. Much as the alcoholism-as-disease paradigm shifted blame for problem drinking from alcohol producers to troubled individuals, Seagram's advertising performed similar cultural work by associating moderation with masculine virtue, middle-class respectability, and the achievement of financial security. Even as Seagram's advertising muddled the meanings of moderation, I argue, it enlisted these tropes of class and gender to help naturalize the ethic of individual responsibility as the common-sense solution to problems of liquor control.