Christmas is (nearly) upon us again and TV is awash with that annual staple of festive entertainment – the booze advert. First to catch my eye this year was Baileys, which features groups of young women in various countries around the world going out and drinking Baileys while looking fabulous and having a generally fantastic time. Although I remain unconvinced that anyone has ever actually ordered Baileys in a pub, the advert interested me because it continues a long-standing tactic of presenting the relationship between alcohol and ‘the promise of sociability’ (Griffin et al. 2009). The alcohol industry frequently demonstrates the capacity to tap into commonly-held conceptions of the role of drinking, with the inherently social nature of drinking together recognised as nothing more than common sense to most people. For many, this resonates with experience far more than our public health foreign language of ‘units’ and ‘daily allowances’.
A further recent announcement from the industry sees the promise of social success married with recent cultural trends. A proposal from one of the big drinks companies suggests a ‘Great British Bake-Off’-style TV show involving people “creating interesting drinks and telling stories” in order to ‘premiumise’(!) key brands. It seems that no corner of popular culture cannot be exploited by a good marketing strategy.
We are constantly promised that we will be more sociable, more popular, tell better stories, and just be…well, better, if we only drink a particular product. This promise of social benefit has been a part of alcohol advertising since the dawn of the sector, and there is a tendency within the public health community to believe that if only we could remove the advert, the attitude towards alcohol would soon follow.
Undeniably, advertising plays a role in the toxic triumvirate of high visibility-high availability-low cost, which promotes heavy consumption and the associated negative health and behavioural outcomes. Vast amounts of funding and a permissive legislative climate no doubt contribute to the ongoing success of alcohol advertising in saturating public life. But we need to avoid focusing on the medium over the message. Alcohol use has been has been part of the social and cultural landscape in the UK for millennia, ‘normalised’ long before the mass media age and the advent of an industry dedicated to maximising sales. Part of why these adverts work is that they’re telling us things that we want to believe, and tapping into long-held cultural understandings of the function of alcohol.
By focusing on the connection between alcohol and social success, and by riding the ‘Bake-Off’ wave, alcohol promotion harnesses the perceived benefits of social drinking that we still seem unwilling to acknowledge within public health. By paying more attention to our historical relationship with alcohol, we in public health could better understand the cultural inheritance that leads the majority of UK adults to see alcohol as a valuable social lubricant. This is a very necessary step if we are to stand a chance at addressing harmful drinking.
So the question then is, how do we do it? Can we maintain the sense of sociability in interpersonal relationships that is regarded as important to many people, while communicating palatable safe drinking messages? Perhaps the reason public health has not looked more at the perceived positive function of alcohol is that this means acknowledging that some alcohol use is culturally ‘normal’. Jayne et al. (2011) make the important point that “hazardous/harmful drinking is not a dangerous behaviour distinct from wider society; it is an exaggerated form of a widely accepted social practice” (p.57). In an understandable quest for a simple message about a complex problem, public health rhetoric often errs on the side of demonising all drinking. However, the dichotomous language of ‘drinker’ or ‘non-drinker’ often presented to young people can serve to, unhelpfully, elevate abstinence to a pedestal rather than presenting it as simply one of several valid –and ‘normal’ – options.
It is both possible and necessary to talk about ‘problem drinking’ without falling into ‘all drinking is a problem’. Otherwise, we will continue to ignore the social functions of alcohol, and remain outside common understandings of its role. This creates a barrier which results in failure to challenge the excess consumption patterns that cause social and personal harm.
Griffin, C. et al. (2009) The allure of belonging: Young peoples’ drinking practices and collective identification. In: Wetherell, M. (Eds). Identity in the 21st Century: New Trends in Changing Times. Palgrave Macmillan. London
Jayne, M. et al. (2011) Alcohol, Drinking, Drunkenness: (Dis)Orderly Spaces. Ashgate Publishing Company. Farnham.
About the author: Rachel Brown is a DECIPHer PhD student at Cardiff University. Her PhD is entitled: ‘”A lot of the social events in uni revolve around alcohol and going out, so to join in you sort of have to drink”: understanding multilevel influences on new university student alcohol use and implication for organisational practice’.