Drug Education News

News and views from the Drug Education Forum

Branded Consumption and Social Identification: Young People and Alcohol

Readers may remember that I posted a presentation about how young people see their drinking and how they view public health messages about alcohol a little while ago. The ERSC have now published a paper that formally expresses the findings from that research and as we’ve seen that’s been the focus of some media attention.

As is immediately obvious the paper is concerned with young drinkers over the age of 18 years, and so while not being of immediate relevance to those of us who focus on education and prevention amongst children and young people under 18 is still a very useful piece of background information; particularly as it addresses how alcohol is viewed by young drinkers and how they respond to official health messages.

In this context the paper argues:

Drinking to intoxication has become normalised amongst the majority of young men – and women – as an integral part of a ‘good night out’. Public drunkenness, including urinating and vomiting in the street, are an increasingly common and socially acceptable form of behaviour – at least for young men (Hobbs et al., 2000). These changes have also resulted in a (partial) ‘regendering’ of alcohol consumption, with more young women drinking to intoxication and involved in public displays of drunkenness, which has also been reflected in a gendered discourse of moral panic over ‘ladettes’ and perceived risks to young women’s health and well-being (Jackson and Tinkler, 2007).

It goes on to explain that despite this, and an increasing concern amongst policy makers about the implications of this behaviour, very few studies into how young people view their alcohol consumption.

Advertising

The researchers look at contemporary advertising of alcohol and conclude that it is “far more diverse, complex and sophisticated than a traditional focus on alcohol adverts would suggest.” They argue that at least in part through advertising alcohol has become central to young people’s view of how to create and sustain friendships:

The association of leisure with compulsory ‘fun’ in alcohol advertising, and the representation of alcohol as essential for the production of that ‘fun’, provides a powerful boost to the contemporary culture of intoxication that dominates young people’s relationship to drinking (Hackley et al., under review).

Drinking Practices

The paper describes the ways in which young people try to provide a positive alternative view of themselves to the negative stereotype of being “binge drinkers”, which the researchers call ‘calculated hedonism’. This hedonism is then turned into a narrative which reinforces behaviour and defines the level of risk that young people are prepared to take with their drinking:

Drinking stories played an important role in our participants’ social lives and in the formation and consolidation of their friendship groups (cf. Workman, 2001). Their stories involved cautionary tales of risk and the dangers associated with drinking; narratives involving loss of (self-)consciousness and loss of memory linked to excessive drinking; adventure stories of fun, risk and excitement; and a wealth of ‘funny stories’ about the pleasures and perils of drinking, socialising and ‘going out’ in the night-time economy.

Impacts of the Research

Readers of this blog will already be aware of the limitations of public health advertising as a standalone strategy, and the difficulty of creating messages that will resonate with a universal audience. Nevertheless, the authors of this paper argue there are lessons from their research for policy makers and those that commission public health campaigns and health education. In particular they say that currently there is too big a gap between official discourse on alcohol and young people and the young people’s own view of the world:

Our participants were engaged in complex discussions about the harms, risks and pleasures associated with drinking, the allure of ‘cheap deals’ and sophisticated marketing techniques, but set firmly within a dominant culture of intoxication that normalises drinking to excess, linked to a discourse constituting ‘fun’ as compulsory. Official discourses of panic over young people’s ‘binge drinking’ that emphasise recommended ‘safe’ levels of drinking in terms of restricted units of alcohol consumed, are unlikely to have any substantial purchase on young people’s drinking practices.

They go on to argue that while the change in policy emphasis away from individual problem drinkers to a focus on particular groups should be helpful there is still too much onus on individual responsibility for alcohol consumption and not enough on how the alcohol industry operates and markets to young people.

We would argue that government policies around alcohol-related harm need to tackle issues of price, availability and the marketing and sale of increasingly strong drinks to young people, whilst recognising the important role drinking plays in young people’s social lives and the formation of their social group identities.

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