Substance Abuse Is Up. Marketers Could Be Making It Worse

Sobering thoughts on the inclusive language we need for people in recovery

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Thousands die from alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses in the U.S. each year. Yet language used by both consumers and brands is barbed with terms linked to substance abuse. Words like “addict” and “junkie” are used casually to communicate passion, but they’re not synonyms at all—they’re specific, and to a large part of the population, triggering.

Examination of this language feels particularly relevant after a 2023 National Institutes of Health study found that people aged 35-50 are binge drinking and using marijuana at record levels. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 20 million Americans aged 12 and over are living with addiction. Meanwhile, language and stereotypes associated with substance abuse go unchecked in advertising. Brand marketers tasked with communicating the desirability of products and services have drawn inspiration from illegal substances like crack cocaine: Milk Bar was pressured to change the name of their famous “Crack Pie” after being criticized and, in a 2020 apology, eventually recognized that “criminalization of crack cocaine possession and mandatory minimum sentencing specifically targeted and wreaked havoc on Black communities.”

Many brands have crossed this line for their own gain, and without repercussions. Dior first launched its Addict beauty line in 2002 and has continued to introduce perfumes and other cosmetics under the moniker for over 20 years. Fast food is a category where addiction lexicon is perhaps most prevalent: Wingstop put out a spot in 2020 called “Get Your Fix;” White Castle currently implores people to “experience craver culture.”

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is widespread in our society, and while it is a treatable and chronic mental health condition, it’s often seen as a moral failing. As a result, people managing substance abuse tend to be treated as responsible for their disease, resulting in societal stigma that leads to shame and isolation. It’s time for the advertising industry to consider its role in our society’s fight with substance abuse.

Optimal language for SUD

In an age where consumers are expecting cultural competency and sensitivity from brands, it’s paramount that marketers choose their words carefully. Language can challenge or reinforce stigmas, and in this case, insensitive language excludes those in recovery and can even cause harm. Marketers aiming to use inclusive language and respect members of our communities who are impacted by SUD should keep the following guidelines in mind.

Overall, marketers should avoid using the vocabulary of addiction, terms like “addict,” and “junkie,” to describe a brand’s products or services—it trivializes SUD and stigmatizes people experiencing it. When discussing SUD, avoid the word “habit,” which makes SUD sound like a choice rather than a disease, and using the terms “clean” or “dirty” to describe choices. 

When discussing addiction, use the term “substance use disorder” to describe it. Don’t say “clean” to reference drug test results or a person’s recovery—do use the phrase “in recovery” when referring to those undergoing treatment for SUD, and the terms “use” when referring to illegal drugs and “misuse” when referring to prescription drugs.

How to speak more inclusively

The topic of addiction offers a particular lens into this broad challenge, but marketers should carefully consider how they are describing all lenses of identity, from gender to age, ability and socioeconomic status. Inclusive language honors and respects the multitude of lived experiences in our communities, but it also helps brands reach consumer groups that have been historically ignored by many brands.

At a very high level, there are three key factors to remember when crafting brand language:

  1. Follow the leader. The language we use to describe groups and communities should align with how they describe themselves. Nuance related to identity is easily misunderstood by those who don’t live a particular experience. Marketers should look to the groups they’re aiming to describe for guidance. 
  2. The only constant is change. Language is ever-evolving, and marketers can better serve their brands if they are constantly learning. As our culture shifts, our language follows—marketers should make an effort to stay up to date on how these changes impact their work. 
  3. Inclusion drives connection. Inclusion presents tremendous opportunities for brand growth because it creates connections with groups that may have previously been excluded. Marketers who prioritize inclusion should expect to see their brands outperform those that are not inclusive and should continue to learn how they can over-serve new consumer groups that have been underserved in the past.

The thread through all of this is people—the ways we use language and the ways it’s received. Writing as a brand requires thinking of language as a tool that can be experienced by audiences as a weapon or a welcome.

By demonstrating craft and care with words—regarding the language of addiction and other identities more broadly—brands will ultimately attract new communities. Or we can think about it conversely: Communicating with language that triggers different communities is like a public decree that they’re not desired customers. What brand would want to declare that?