Updated 10 March 2013

Alcohol and Advertising

There have been recent moves by the government to ban alcohol advertising. A clinical psychologist looks at the banning of alcohol advertising and what they hope to achieve.

There have been recent moves by the government to ban alcohol advertising, however it is important to ask what such a ban will hope to achieve, says clinical psychologist Gary Koen.

Will it help prevent, alcohol addiction, underage drinking, foetal alcohol syndrome, drunk driving, Monday morning absenteeism, unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence, myriads of health problems, both physical and emotional, as well as the hours and hours of time wasted both getting drunk or recovering from being drunk?   If the answer to all of those questions is “Yes”, then the decision is a no brainer. Of course we must ban alcohol advertising, with immediate effect.

However before we hurry off filled with self-righteous glee to begin rewriting the statute books, we do need to pause, and ask ourselves this: Are we saying that the advertising of alcohol is actually responsible for all these ills? Surely not.

Is it not more true to say that all of those ills are the result of human behaviour, largely driven by free will, individual choice, indifference, defiance and ignorance? If so, then it is highly unlikely that the banning of alcohol advertisements will have any effect at all in addressing the underlying reasons behind all these destructive behaviours.

Logic would then suggest that the only way to prevent these ills from occurring is to stop people from drinking alcohol altogether.

After all, it’s not as though advertising made people start drinking in the first place.

Alcohol consumption and people

Human beings came up with that idea all by themselves.  Shortly after discovering fire, while some went off to hunt mammoths, others found a way to make a brew. Alcohol has been part of humankinds experience since virtually the first syllable of recorded time, and there is little to suggest that alcohol will not be part of humankind’s existence until its final few heartbeats.

Alcohol is here to stay and there is not much that is going to change this fact. Attempts to ban and control and eradicate alcohol have produced mixed results.

The last country that attempted this endeavour against alcohol was the United States, and we all know how well that went.

 Other nations and cultures have attempted to forbid the possession and the consumption of alcohol with varying degrees of success.  A recent newspaper reports that an Iranian court sentenced two repeat offenders to death- their crime- drinking alcohol.

Some might argue that the countries with a more  tolerant and accepting  attitude towards alcohol  such as those found along the Mediterranean, offer a much more wholesome and laid back lifestyle, filled with good food, good wine, good conversation and long siestas. However there are concerns that even these wholesome ways are under threat, as the economic reality’s start to bite.

Along with many other changes to the traditional way of life, there has been a very sharp rise in the amount of teenage drunkenness. So much so, those social authorities are reluctantly starting to confront this disturbing trend.  Needless to say, the reason that this is apparently happening is that their old  family way of life  appears to be crumbling, and more and more parents are becoming absent from their teenagers lives.

Alcohol can destroy your life

It is also fair to say that alcohol by itself is not dangerous at all.  So long as it stays in its bottle, safely on the shelf it, it is perfectly harmless.  Alcohol may be capable of destroying your life, but the one thing that it will never be able to do is jump off the shelf and down your throat. That part is always going to be up to you.

 Here is where things do get a little hazy when it comes to advertising, because the whole point of advertising would be to ensure that some of that alcohol does indeed find its way out of the bottle and down your throat.

In this respect, the alcohol companies certainly must have something to answer for- if the point of any form of advertising is to increase consumer consumption, then it has to be true that alcohol advertising must be encouraging people to drink more, not less.

It would be very unusual for a company to advertise in order for people to consume less, and in this respect alcohol manufactures can be no different. Not that South Africans need any encouragement to drink. As a society, we drink, and as South Africans we drink a lot. In fact we drink so much it would seem hardly necessary for alcohol manufacturers to advertise at all.

What is indisputable though, is advertising certainly normalises alcohol consumption, giving off something of a teenage message, “It’s ok to drink, because everybody already does it”.

Another question we need to ask is: “Does advertising reflect society, or does it define society?” Will it help if advertisers use their considerable creative muscle and understanding of human behaviour to offer a different message? Instead of showing us countless images of beautiful,  happy, successful people  all living wonderful, meaningful lives  while sharing various kinds of alcoholic beverages with one another, perhaps they could be showing more images which reflect  the truth of  drinking too much alcohol.

Perhaps we should not only be concerning ourselves with responsible drinking, perhaps we should also be insisting on responsible advertising. 

(Gary Koen, Health24, November 2012) 


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