The Hierarchy of Drinks in Buenos Aires

In an article titled The Hierarchy of Drinks: Alcohol and Social Class in Hong Kong, Eric Kit-wai Ma wrote:

Alcoholic drinks are a luxury good, often promoted and consumed for reasons other than the biological need of quenching thirst.  Since the number of brands and types of alcoholic drink that exist in the market are vast, each brand tries to compete for a unique market position that 'sells' by articulating a special identity for potential customers.  While an individual consumer may accept, ignore or negotiate these invitations and choose his or her own variety of alcohol for idiosyncratic reasons, all these various personal articulations reveal, when taken as a whole, an underlying form and pattern, and an imagined hierarchy of alcoholic produces emerges.  This hierarchy is the result not only of complicated processes which involve pricing, marketing campaigns, and image engineering on the part of companies that produce alcoholic drinks, but, more mysteriously, of the consumption patterns and the general structure of feeling within a given community at a given time.

The hierarchical cultural imagination of alcoholic drinks points to the elusive and implicit relations between advertising media and cultural and social identity.  There are indeed analyzable structures of cultural imagination related to liquor consumption.  People share these structures as commonsensical knowledge, which can be illustrated by the spontaneous reaction of one of my informants.  Mr Tang is a veteran Hong Kong TV producer who make a number of very popular 'middle-class TV dramas' in the 1990s.  He pithily summarizes the cultural imagination of alcoholic drinks when he talks about the way he arranges who drinks what in his dramas:

I would not arrange for a poor character to drink brandy.  He just cannot afford that.  Even if I were to do so, the audience just wouldn't find it believable.  Yet on the other hand, I wouldn't arrange situations that are too stereotypical, either.  For example, manual labourers do not necessarily need to drink Kiu Kiang Shuang Jin Chiew [a Chinese rice wine], even though this is thought to be typical of what such people would drink; instead they might drink beer.  This is a judgment based on common sense.  I believe beer is what most people find affordable.

Here, Tang has laid out a simple three-class structure of alcohol in Hong Kong.  The most inferior type of alcoholic drinks is Chinese rice wine.  Tang implies what most people consider as the norm: Chinese rice wine is for the poor and for manual labourers.  Then, in the middle, is the alcoholic beverage for the masses: beer.  On the top level of the hierarchy is brandy, which is 'not believable' when it is drunk by the poor except in rituals such as weddings.  The reasons for such a hierarchy are complex and numerous.  Explicit factors such as pricing explain the fact that brandy is seen as superior to other kinds of alcohol, which cost less.  However, the fact that the price of 'the inferior Chinese rice wine' is more expensive than or similar to most brands of beer hints at the existence of some other, less obvious factors.  These soft factors are shared by people  in the society and can serve as cultural indicators as to the 'common sense' of the community.  This imagined hierarchy can remain recognizable over a certain period; but of course culture is always changing, and responding to socio-economic shifts.  Thus, studying the cultural imaginations attached to different brands of alcoholic drink can enable us to map out, at least partially, the contours of the shifting structure of feelings of post-war Hong Kong.

If as is asserted above, the hierarchy of drinks is a unique situation for a particular market at a particular time, then we may see the same or possibly different configurations in other places or at other moments in time.  Here we will move to the opposite side of the world and look at the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina.  We will refer to some survey data from the 2003 TGI Argentina survey.  Within this survey, there were 3,371 persons who are alcohol consumers in the Greater Buenos Aires area.  These respondents were asked about the types of alcohol drinks that they consume.  In the following chart, we show the consumption rates by socio-economic level.  For brandy/cognac, tequila, vodka, rum, whiskey/scotch, white wine, red wine and champagne, the pattern is by and large an increasing function of socio-economic level.  Thus, the more affluent, the higher the consumption rate.  Sidra is a slightly alcoholic cider and is produced in Argentina mostly for internal consumption, and it alone has a opposite profile of being consumed the most by the lower class.  The patterns here is that the consumption of alcoholic drinks other than sidra are driven by cost and cultural considerations, as they are in many other places in the world.  This is no surprise.

(source: 2003 TGI Argentina)

Within the TGI Argentina study, those respondents were also asked about their consumption of beer.  By socio-economic status, we have the following consumption incidences:

There is in fact not much difference in the overall consumption rate by socio-economic level.  However, the situation is different when we get into the beer brands, as shown in the following chart.  The market leader is the quintessential Argentine brand, Quilmes and this brand cuts evenly across all socio-economic levels.  The Brazilian brand Brahma is virtually considered a national brand since the production facility is located in Argentina, and again this brand cuts evenly across all socio-economic levels.  Then there are three imports --- Budweiser from the United States, Heinekin from Holland and Isenbeck from Germany --- which are positioned as upscale international brands.  For these three brands, we the consumption increases by socio-economic level.

(source: 2003 TGI Argentina)

As Ma pointed out in his article, his conclusions can only be described as commonsenical: "People throughtout the affluent world use products such as alcoholic drinks to position themselves within the intricate class structures of their own societies.  Alcohol consists not just of drinks but of complex social symbols throughout the world at large."

(posted by Roland Soong, 12/27/2003)

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