Experts say demonising young people in order to promote safe drinking must be stopped

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Researchers in Britain say advertising aimed at encouraging the safe drinking of alcohol are unsuccessful - they are calling for the “demonising” of young people in order to promote safe drinking to be stopped.

The researchers conducted a survey funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ERSC) and say their results suggest the government has not been as successful as it should have been in its attempts to encourage responsible drinking among the 18-25 age group.

They say their research has revealed that young people view drinking as a fun, social habit and do not see their own drinking cultures reflected in adverts with a negative stance.

The researchers carried out in-depth interviews with 89 people aged 18-25 over a three-year period and they suggest the government’s recent campaign aimed at binge drinking and encouraging people to “think twice about the serious consequences” has failed.

According to Professor Christine Griffin, from the University of Bath who led the research, the government needs to take action as the project found that alcohol played a significant part in forming a “group identity” and that drinking and alcohol-related stories played an “important role” in binding different social groups together.

Professor Griffin says the top priority should be to stop demonising and making generalisations about young people and their drinking and listen and incorporate their views and perspectives.

The researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Bath carried out the in-depth interviews for ‘The Young People and Alcohol’ project and interviewed young people in three locations across the country which included a major city centre in the English Midlands with a diverse population, a seaside town and a small market town in the West Country with a more homogenous population and fewer places to drink.

The project focused on how adverts and other marketing practices shape people’s attitudes to drinking and the research included the analysis of 216 alcohol adverts, both in print and broadcast form.

The researchers found that educational adverts which often advocated “safe levels” of alcohol consumption, such as this year’s £4m anti-binge-drinking campaign, were viewed as “laughably unrealistic” - the campaign included TV images showing young people injuring themselves, acting violently and smearing vomit in their hair.

The researchers say young people do not apparently identify with the drinkers in adverts whereas adverts which highlighted that drinking was a “cool” habit and a form of “calculated hedonism” did appeal to them and were influential.

The researchers say representations of binge drinking as a source of entertainment, coupled with pervasive coverage of drunken celebrities has increased the social acceptance of binge drinking.

Also advertising representing the ‘coolness’ of excessive drinking, along with the increasing use of internet based social networking sites that are used to share images of drunken nights out, also enable the linkage between alcohol and ‘having fun’.

The researchers also found that participants discussed the harm, risks and pleasures of drinking but this was set firmly within a culture of “drinking to excess”, which they described as a form of fun.

The researchers say for young people, drinking is very much a part of their social life but much of the government literature tends to present a picture of it being an individual responsibility rather than a social one whereas young people do accept the idea of responsible drinking but far more from the social side, by ensuring there are designated drivers and people to look out for each other and see that their friends are safe.

Apparently shock tactic adverts do not always work and run the risk of alienating the very people they were meant to target and the researchers say while extreme drinking and determined drunkenness may be perceived as the norm amongst young people, evidence suggests that increases in young people’s alcohol consumption is levelling off.

Isabelle Szmigin, Professor of Marketing at the Birmingham University’s Business School,,who also took part in the research, says although many young people recognise the damage that ‘drinking too much’ can do to their health, and the associated risks of physical and sexual assault, few view these as more than short term problems.

Chris Hackley Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the study suggests a radical re-thinking of national alcohol policy is required which takes into account the social character of alcohol consumption and the identity implications for young people.

The researchers say future government policies on alcohol-related harm needed to tackle cheap prices, how drinks were marketed but without being “heavy-handed” and recognising the role of alcohol as a “social glue”.


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