TERRY PRONE: It’s time we all take responsibility for our risky binge-drinking culture

TV ads for beer establish an atmosphere and context of collective happiness, writies Terry Prone


Fergus Finlay got it wrong. We clear on that? The minute I heard that Diageo was funding his campaign against alcohol abuse, I thought it was a mistake. I wasn’t going to come out and say so, because Fergus Finlay is like one of those dogs with automatically locking jaws — once he gets his teeth in your leg, you never shake him off. But the truth is, I felt he was going the MEAS road, and this is not a road to go.

MEAS is a registered charity —God alone knows why it has that status — sponsored by the drinks industry to make the drinks industry look responsible. MEAS — it stands for Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society — takes itself very seriously. It actually states, as a article of faith, that “alcohol must be respected.” It must? Says who? What happens if it isn’t? And, assuming we were to buy into this concept of respecting commodities, must we respect 10-year-old malt more than a wine cooler?

MEAS produces codes of practice in the sort of livery I associate with Catholic Truth Society publications of my youth. They were the leaflets at the back of the church which addressed problem issues like sex. They addressed those issues in such vague terms that, having read one of them, you weren’t sure what it had been about, you just knew they disapproved of whatever it was, except in such circumstances as were guaranteed to take any pleasure out of the confusing thing. I’ve always believed those leaflets contributed to, rather than prevented, a good portion of the unplanned pregnancies of the time, because you’d be done, dusted, and pregnant before you realised: “Oh, that’s what the leaflet was about.”

MEAS’s approach is along the same lines. It has a website which is like a toilet roll. Unused, I hasten to add, lest you should for a moment think me negative about MEAS. The website just unrolls forever, like the TV ad with the labrador puppy, and is built around police officer blue, designed to imbue it with gravitas. It has a code of practice to which drink manufacturers sign up, which, inter alia, supposedly prevents them running ads to convince potential drinkers that ingesting industry product will make them more popular or more successful.

Perhaps, then, MEAS would explain the TV ads for beer which establish, even for me, an inattentive teetotal bystander, an atmosphere and context of collective happiness you’d need to be dumb as a tree not to interpret as the beer promising that if you drink it, you too will be as popular and socially gifted as the lads in the ads.

This is a Code of Practice with rubber teeth. It also begs the question as to why the hell the drinks industry requires a registered charity to allow it to agree a voluntary code of practice in the first place.

But back to Fergus Finlay and my doubts about his campaign. I had kind of forgotten him and my doubts about him until, on the way home one evening, my car got stopped by traffic congestion beneath an advertising poster. The poster shows a girl of perhaps 10 or 11, school-uniformed, and clutching a camogie stick. She’s standing against a wall beside an open bathroom door. Inside the bathroom, in soft focus, is a female figure upchucking into the toilet.

This is not the kind of poster that usually entertains me on my way home from work. Normally, I get posters from banks suggesting I change my banger for a beaut, breathtaking pictures of holiday locations or shots of hamburgers so beautifully structured, every vivid tomato and pickle begs for my custom.

The poster with the girl carried a tagline to the effect that she’s fed up being let down and the whole poster presented, at a passing glance, the story of a family tragedy. Whoever came up with the idea deserves a medal, as do the team who executed it.

It turns out that this poster, which is now to be seen everywhere, is part of Fergus Finlay’s campaign about out-of-control drinking. I learned that on the same day I learned that an amazing array of the great and good, the pillars of our society, were lining up to beat the tar out of him, the campaign, and Diageo for sponsoring it. A drinks company setting out to reduce drink sales was just not credible, they said. This, they said (or at least one of them said) was just the kind of thing cigarette manufacturers did.

That’s where all the dots don’t join up. The poster I saw wasn’t setting out to reduce drinking or drink sales. It was setting out to create awareness of binge-drinking. Perhaps even to create an awareness of binge-drinking among a) young and b) middle-class women. If binge-drinking among young middle-class women could be stopped tomorrow, it would not harm Diageo sales a whit, as long as the binge-drinking females went instead for moderate imbibing over a longer period of time, instead of saving up for weekends and hen nights of drinking to destruction.

Linking the campaign to allegedly similar efforts by Big Tobacco is baffling. As a card-carrying tobacco-hater, I have a library documenting the evils of that industry, and I cannot, in the index of any of its volumes, locate any reference to JTI or other fag-pushers ever having run campaigns designed to reduce out-of-control smoking. Big Tobacco has lied, misled, bribed, and expensively lobbied from the first moment queries were raised about the dangers of smoking. But I cannot find, and would be glad to get the details of, any campaign run by tobacco manufacturers that is in any way comparable with Diageo’s reportedly hands-off funding of an independent body headed by one of the most independent, not to say ornery, humans alive.

Now, health educators would point out that changing attitudes and behaviours is never achieved by a poster or advertisement, no matter how arresting that poster or advertisement. This point is supported by a solid body of research, which should, but never does, raise serious questions about the spend on road safety ads/posters. Nobody, however, has suggested that the camogie-girl poster is anything but an awareness-raiser, and the campaign due to follow should include as many evidence-supported behaviour-change modalities as possible.

Much of the opposition to the campaign seems to derive from a belief that Diageo might get covered in brownie points as a result. Cue bitter laugh from Diageo, who haven't seen many brownie points headed their way since the campaign was announced.

What has happened, however, is what I would call Paradox PR. Although the debat stimulated by the campaign has devoted precious little attention to the substantive issue, as Gavin Duffy, one of those behind it, has pointed out, it certainly has stimulated a debate,

which undoubtedly turns a necessary spotlight on uncontrolled drinking. Which means Fergus Finlay may have got it right from the start. 

So annoying, that possibility.

READ MORE: SUZANNE HARRINGTON: To boldly go where no camera has gone before


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