“Please Advertise Responsibly”

By Person Irresponsible 11/17/21

One of AA’s most oft-quoted phrases is “alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful,” and so is its advertising.

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Book cover for "Everything You Ever Taught Me"

“Please smoke responsibly.” When was the last time you saw an advertisement requesting that? Most likely never. The vast majority of people know cigarettes are nothing more glorious than ‘cancer sticks’ and public perceptions around smoking have changed radically since the 1980s, when the habit was at its most popular. Nowadays, smoking is seen as anti-social and is facing ever-increasing restrictions in public places including outdoors, lest it forces others to passively inhale.

Interestingly, during lockdown the downward trend of smoking reversed temporarily amongst the younger demographic, but overall more people ceased smoking than was anticipated. Starting is easy, stopping is not. I only found the motivation to stop three months before I set out to walk across America. My last cigarette, ironically, was supplied by a very good friend of mine herself dying of lung cancer aged 51. Those warnings they blazon on the ubiquitous black packets here in Europe are starting to come true within my social set. Recent research indicates the stark warnings on cigarettes only deter casual or low frequency smokers and not us hardened addicts.

Britain wound up all cigarette advertising in 2002. America banned advertising on television and radio back in 1970, and on billboards in 1997. In recent years, America has largely legalised the imbibing of cannabis. When I spent six months hiking across the west coast, I was astonished to discover the childlike packaging that products are sold in. It struck me they were being sold as sweets for adults. Currently marijuana use remains illegal here in the UK but I suspect it is only a matter of time before it becomes drastically deregulated. This is going to bring questions of marketing to the fore. Will cannabis, after years in the illegal wilderness, be treated like booze or cigarettes?

Currently, for women, anything over one bottle of wine a week is considered to be ‘heavy drinking’ in the UK. And yet, I am bombarded daily with advertisements for alcohol. The restrictions surrounding marketing alcoholic beverages in the UK are comparatively flimsy: they must not depict people drinking in unsafe environments, they cannot encourage excessive drinking nor claim to have health benefits. Significantly, they must not target the under 25s. Incidentally, or coincidentally perhaps, our under 25s aren’t binge drinking anywhere near as much as women in their thirties to fifties - a group whose drinking is now hitting very worrying levels indeed. Binge drinking amongst this sector of society increased 55% in the pandemic although it has been steadily rising for decades. This is directly attributed to the increase in social mobility and women gaining independent income thanks to regulation changes beginning in the 1970s. 

Women’s drinking is seen as also different to men’s, and thus how alcohol is marketed follows suit. Notwithstanding those gender differences, It is mandated in the UK that both static and dynamic adverts must contain the request that we “please drink responsibly”. This regulation is emphatically more polite, and less immoral, than the stark “smoking can kill you and harm your children,” which is typically stamped onto a packet of cigarettes.

Marketing methods have also also changed substantially in recent years. Once upon a time sales pitches were confined to squares of various sizes in newspapers and magazines, or via moving images every fifteen to twenty minutes on a television programme. Over the run up to the Christmas period, I make a determined effort never to watch a moment’s live TV, simply so I can fast forward through the plentiful ads for seasonal booze. But in recent years the advertising bombardment has become relentless: a scroll through social media will have me assaulted every few moments. I like to soak away in the bath watching bemusing videos or documentaries but these days YouTube ads frequently interrupt my viewing. My personal algorithm seems to attract whiskey adverts, but it’s not adverse to gin either. It’s baffling to me: I’ve been sober for over five years now. Although I am largely immune to the enticements, I still have to make a concerted effort to reject some adverts as unwanted or unsuitable. Regardless, I am targeted and I can’t help but observe that the overall message is that the alcohol product will make me more sophisticated, more sexy and far more entertaining than usual. 

I used to believe that too. Only it didn’t, and I have ample war stories to bore my fellows in recovery with. The time I bought a jetski whilst intoxicated? Hilarious! The time I fell face-first into a wall breaking a finger and splitting my lip. Not so much. The time I abused someone I’d never met on an online forum thinking I was being funny. Absolutely cringe-inducing. Oh, but my drinking was absolutely fine, I told myself, because I only drank on so-called non-school nights and after six o’clock.

Then there’s the culture of drinking. In March 2020, memes began to tackle the long-held myth that daytime drinking was the only problematic kind of drinking. All of a sudden, during the pandemic it was being normalised. “When lockdown is over, half of us will be expert bread-makers and the other half will be alcoholics,” was one that stuck with me.” Another one referred to the stringent stay-at-home orders: “Homeschooling is going well, two students have been suspended for fighting, and the teacher has been fired for drinking on the job.” Alcohol is now sold as an act of parental self-care, but substitute ‘drinking’ with ‘smoking’ and the humour is readily whipped away.

One of AA’s most oft-quoted phrases is “alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful,” and so is its advertising. Seventy percent of us are aware of the link between smoking and cancer. Less than fifteen percent of adults know that drinking and cancer strongly correlate too. In women, one bottle of wine a week is said to be the equivalent of ten cigarettes (five for men) in terms of damage done.

Smokers and drinkers rely on these substances to soothe, to entertain, to displace a myriad of unpleasant emotions, or elevate good moods. There’s no doubt that they work on psychological levels, but for some of us their lethal nature is bound by the fact we have a physiological reaction not universally applicable to the population at large. We still can’t be sure whether alcoholics are born or made, there’s evidence to support both ends of the dichotomy. Cannabis is said to be non-addictive, yet recent research is exploding this myth: and just like alcohol, not every user will end up dependent. The problem arises is that we don’t currently know who will become addicted and who won’t. And for those of us that do, many of us assume we are in the camp that isn’t. What’s even more perplexing is why these two very lethal substances are treated so differently when it comes to marketing. 

So please: do smoke responsibly but remember that alcohol can kill you and harm your children.
 

Person Irresponsible is the author of Everything You Ever Taught Me, which captures her six-month hike across America, sober and cigarette-free, during the pandemic of 2020. She got into the recovery gig in March 2016, stopped smoking in late 2019 and gave up walking long-distances on 7th September, 2020.

Like all addicts, she knows this is just a temporary reprieve and is likely to take up something new soon enough.

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Person Irresponsible is an author, adventurer and recovering alcoholic. Her recent book Everything You Ever Taught Me charts her 2,653-mile hike from Mexico to Canada whilst fat, funny, mid-forties and in her fourth year of sobriety.