On Babycham, wine in a can, and cyclical drinking trends / by Emilia Morano-Williams

"Babycham" might call to mind pastel pink sneakers with teal accents or a My Little Pony figurine or Lady Gaga’s hair circa 2010.

But those aren’t Babycham.

Babycham is a sparkling perry, or fizzy pear cider. It was introduced in Britain in the 1950s as a Champagne alternative. Let’s say you were a Birmingham housewife throwing a Christmas cocktail party for your friends. You’d head to Tesco and pick up a carton of Carling for the men and a few four packs of Babycham for the ladies. During the party, while the guys talked football and guzz;ed, you and your friends would dissect Murder She Wrote and sip Babycham from mini-coupes emblazoned with the leaping deer mascot. Close your eyes and block out the sports talk and you could pretend to be enjoying a flute of Champagne at a café in Paris.

But how did a pseudo-wine with a mascot that resembles Bambi after one too many glasses of cider become a cultural touchstone for Brits? Because women wanted to drink like men. Until the 1960s, alcohol marketing targeted predominately males. If a female ordered beer or spirits at a bar, she seemed promiscuous or cheap. Babycham offered a solution. It was affordable, sweet, and served in controlled portions. When asking for a Babycham, women avoided seeming extravagant and demonstrated their refined palate and constitution. Drinking Babycham meant drinking femininity.

And, frankly, Babycham also meant drinking something quite good. The perry is sweet with a delicate fizz and not-too-assertive fruity flavor, like a cross between cider and bad champagne. Or a Lambrusco from a region where wine doesn’t need to foil aggressively salty prosciutto and Parmesan. It’s a shame that most Brits only remember Babycham during Christmas.

But that doesn’t mean the trends Babycham negotiated are obsolete. Contemporary drink trends emphasize how the alcohol-gender-aspiration link changes regularly. Take wine in a can. Companies such as Portland's Union Wine aim to shift wine’s perception from snobbish and sophisticated to common and cool to convince men that they can drink wine without appearing pretentious or effeminate. Whereas Babycham used branded coupes and a cute animal mascot to present alcohol as feminine, Underwood uses a minimal can to readjust wine’s social signification.

For both beverages, marketing drives the relationship between product and perception. Babycham’s early adverts featured a deer frolicking through animated landscapes and leading couples to hidden stashes of bottles. Although men are present, they never drink it. Instead, Babycham is reserved for women who sip it from glasses, not from the bottle. The slogan, “I’d love a Babycham” implies consent. By agreeing to a drink, women agree to the man offering it. This connection is made explicit with caresses in Babycham adverts from the '70s, but appears in the early ads through the coquettish glances between the male and female protagonists.

Union wine advertisements fight against the feminine association that Babycham promoted. Their advertisements for Underwood wine in a argue that “wine doesn’t have to be this hard” and use the hashtag pinkies down to associate wine with easy pleasure. The new container changes the physical experience of moderation. Each can contains about two traditional glasses, “enough to share, or to keep for yourself”. Emphasizing bounty renders wine a chuggable beverage that doesn’t require reflection on flavor or presentation. Whereas Babycham wooed customers with branded coupes that perfectly fit a bottle, Underwood promises consumers a formless experience that translates seamlessly among drinking situations.

But Babycham changed drinking culture and rendered itself obsolete. Breaking out the coupes with the smiling deer is the beverage equivalent of wearing grandmother glasses. It’s ironic nostalgia. The brand built its market niche on being an acceptable drink for females, but when drinking is acceptable for females, that niche no longer exists. A taste for Babycham is admitting you can’t big guys. It’s a demonstration of nostalgia for a time when a drink seemed like an accomplishment. And doesn’t that seem simple?