The World: Insider's View - Irish Republic

Add a measure of social responsibility to anti-binge-drinking ads and you'll get a more sober response, Keith Murray writes.

A quick scan of the winners at any creative awards ceremony will tell you, if you needed telling, that agencies love to work on drinks brands. There's no end to the highs and lows we will go to in search of new, engaging ways of connecting with our target consumers.

But a similarly quick scan of the campaigns in Ireland and elsewhere produced to promote the sensible and responsible consumption of alcohol generally proves less thrilling. In fact, what strikes the viewer going through a reel of sensible-drinking ads is their similarity rather than their difference. For, although there are obvious executional differences, there is one common thought: alcohol can turn good people bad.

That may seem a sound enough basis for a great campaign. Indeed it has been. It's almost a pity that it simply isn't true. Anne Fox, a social anthropologist working in the area of substance misuse, explains: "I'm sorry to say that these ads reinforce 'magical thinking' regarding alcohol - that alcohol can magically transform who you are and how you behave. It can't. This is a cultural belief, not a chemical fact."

As long as society continues to blame alcohol for something that is a social and cultural problem, binge-drinking behaviour will never change. And ads that reinforce that cultural belief will continue to reinforce binge-drinking behaviour rather than challenge it.

So, what can advertisers do about it? From the Irish research - and I suspect UK research would support the same conclusion - we know that people believe that it is a matter of individual choice whether to drink to excess, but they are opposed to this behaviour affecting others in public. This suggests that what is needed is a not shift in attitudes towards drinking per se, but to acceptable behaviour when drinking.

The liberal policies towards licensing hours in Mediterranean countries, for instance, work in those countries because of the social context in which such policies are implemented. In those countries, overt displays of drunkenness are generally socially unacceptable and, therefore, comparatively rare.

The recently launched campaign for drinkaware.ie in Ireland (The Work 3, page 37) challenges binge-drinking by removing the social permission for drunken behaviour. It's just a first step in creating a new social norm and, of course, it will need to be supported by legal sanctions, enforcement of public-order offences, and industry action in the area of responsible selling and serving of alcohol. But there is a significant body of evidence to support the strategy.

In the case of both smoking and drink-driving, social disapproval of was generated via advertising, which had a subsequent positive and powerful effect on consumer behaviour.

- Keith Murray is the director of client service at Language in Dublin.

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