BRANDED AS BOOZERS
|KATHY O’MEARA CONSIDERS DES BISHOP’S RANT ABOUT IRISH PEOPLE’S INABILITY TO CONSUME ALCOHOL RESPONSIBLY AND THE ROLE MARKETING PLAYS|
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Irishman with or without possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a drink. Or ten. And a burger. Unluckily for him, such is the accessibility and the plummeting cost of the drop that cheers and the grease that smears, these little ‘comforts’ are probably some of the few things Paddy can afford these days. Comedian Des Bishop sees nothing funny about Ireland’s imbibing ways.
In his RTE series Under the Influence he excoriates our national weakness, showing repeatedly, to the point of tiresomeness, typical Saturday night scenes of revelry and its aftermath similar to Daily Mail reportage of the mean fields of Ibiza, though with less clothing. Open the craic up and look down into the crevasse below. Should we sheepishly accept the paradigm that this is our brand, our national condition, our export, even? The semiotics around the marketing of alcohol, the shameless tapping into and exploitation of our needs and vulnerabilities exposes ugly truths similar to those currently spotlighted in the debate about the marketing of high fat and sugary foodstuffs to youngsters.
Bishop argues that the entrenchment of the drinking gene in our national psyche is in part a result of the normalisation process brought about by brilliant marketing; the quite incredible success of the new Arthur’s Day ‘national holiday’ and the close sponsorship ties forged between alcohol brands and major sporting events. The fact that the industry squares the circle, so to speak, by funding Meas’s Drink Aware, is a dangerous precedent, the programme posits, effectively placing a state responsibility in the hands of vested interests. “What does drink responsibly mean? Wear a suit?” Bishop asks facetiously.
We can argue all we like that alcohol marketing is targeted at mature adults in our society and can result in no harm, notwithstanding the 1,200 deaths from alcohol-related cancer each year and the €3.9billion it costs the State per annum. But the government, essentially sports minister Leo Varadkar – a fit doctor and son of a GP himself – has ignored a cast iron opportunity to protect our young people from its devastating effects, instead offering a voluntary system whereby sports clubs can opt-out of a sponsorship arrangement with a drinks company and be compensated by the Department of Health. It is the same government department which allows us to buy as much liquor as we would wish, but restricts the purchase of paracetamol to one packet per person. Go figure.
Fiona Ryan of Alcohol Action Ireland said: “The argument that we need the alcohol industry to sponsor sports so that young people will participate and reduce their drinking is a policy own goal.” Ryan said the industry sponsors sports not as an exercise in corporate philanthropy, but to increase sales ‘by encouraging current drinkers to buy more or by recruiting new customers – and new means young.
In his RTE series Under the Influence, reformed alcoholic Des Bishop highlighted the abuse of drink in Ireland. He compared the areas around Temple Bar and Harcourt Street on weekend nights to war zones where hordes of booze-soaked zombies stagger around. Requests from Bishop to drinks industry spokespeople to appear on the programme and explain the rationale behind the responsible drinking messages in ads were ignored.
So despite the voices of reason becoming louder and harder to dismiss, it seems that by virtue of our old chum, economic necessity, the paradigm is set to prevail: socially desirable, heavily marketed and subsidised booze. Sugar laden, high trans-fat, mass marketed snacks. Sold-off school playing fields. Adulterated foodstuffs and extruded meat content. Government inertia aside, what chance do any of us have when responsibility for the content of our ready meals rests on the broad shoulders of the likes of Iceland chief executive Malcolm Walker? Dismissing Ireland’s FSA finding of 0.1 per cent horsemeat in Iceland frozen meals on BBC’s Panorama as “Well, that’s the Irish, innit?” Walker assured our disbelieving ears in typically truculent fashion:“We carry out tests like you wouldn’t believe…no, we didn’t test for horsemeat, but we didn’t test for dog or cat neither.” Comforting words. We might have closed the stable door after the horse has bolted, but do we now have to do the same thing with the kennel too?
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Norway’s back-to-basics example. Devoting 12 hours of primetime to ‘slow but noble television’, it scored a hit with one in five of its population by screening a wood fire burning, interspersed with experts offering advice on how to store, stack and chop wood, plus the occasional burst of poetry and music.
No ads, no this fire would look even better with flagons of ale warming beside it, no voiceover oozily articulating the benefits of a drop of a winter warmer for the insides. Granted, it doesn’t seem like the stuff we would usually seek out of a Friday night, but somehow it is offering a hell of a lot more integrity than what we are currently getting.