Hello January :-))

At risk of sounding like a right old misery guts, I’m writing today to say that I am very happy to be properly back at work and saying farewell to Christmas for another year. As I launched a half-eaten box of mince pies into the bin this morning, it did cross my mind that maybe nobody likes Christmas all that much after all…

To put this into some context, I should point out that the main event of exchanging gifts, which for me entails watching my lovely girls rip open their presents with glee, is very nice, and something that I am more than happy to do. I also love the enforced downtime that the festive season brings with it, as I generally don’t get much time to relax and it definitely does me good to do so.

But what I hate is the fact that so many people feel extreme emotional pain at this time of year, for a number of reasons ranging from bereavement to broken relationships to things just not being where they hoped they would be. And neither do I like the pressure to be all Nigella-like in the kitchen (which in reality means you miss out on all the fun as you slog it out over a hot stove and a sink full of dirty pots). As a non-drinker, neither do I like the intense commercial push stemming from the alcohol industry, which results in millions downing more booze than anyone should ever do for their mental and physical health.

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When all around us we see signs advertising Prosecco and craft gins, money off multiple bottles of wine at the supermarkets, great big cases of beer at knockdown prices…when magazines are filled with images of glamorous people daintily holding glasses of fizz at elegant Christmas parties, and ideas for disguising hangovers with luxury beauty treatments…when mainstream newspapers are publishing light-hearted articles about the best foods to eat on New Year’s Day when you are nursing a crippling hangover…when we consider all of these things, on top of the various reasons why December can be a cruel and painful month for so many people, is it any wonder that Christmas brings vast numbers to their knees, desperate for it all to be over and for January to get underway with its routine and normality? The temptation to join in and drink excessively can be overwhelming, especially for anyone living with an alcohol dependency.

Personally, I used to hate Christmas, as a drinker and then as a new non-drinker, but as the sober years have passed by it has become a time that I can enjoy for a few small benefits (as mentioned above). But it still strikes me every year that for many, many people, it is unwelcome, difficult and downright awful, and virtually impossible to escape for those who may secretly wish to do so. It isn’t OK to ditch Christmas – in the eyes of many it’s akin to turning down a wedding invitation. You just have to partake – stick a smile on your face and get on with it. And make sure you have fun…or else!

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Midway through cooking Christmas dinner (I’m not a bad cook but it didn’t turn out all that great and I would have preferred to just eat a salad!), I began to daydream about lying on a hot beach somewhere, with a couple of Christmas presents to open followed by a nice swim and a read of a good book in the sunshine. Following on from the theme of my last blog about being true to yourself, I’m starting to think that next December, I may very well pursue this daydream…

Happy January 🙂

Pizza, Wine and Big Fat Profits

I am not a new wave temperance movement believer. I recognise that the factors inherent in a person developing a problematic relationship with alcohol are vast and wide-ranging, and not all those who drink do so to excess. That being said, I am also of the opinion that we live in a heavily alco-centric culture, in which the alcohol industry is granted an extraordinarily free rein when it comes to advertising and marketing its products (which, let’s face it, amount to mere variations of a highly addictive, toxic substance, wrapped up attractively in a variety of innocent looking bottles).

There are many people who have crossed the line into alcohol dependence but who remain in denial with regards to their habit, believing it to be one borne entirely out of choice. Lots of people will grab onto a multitude of convenient excuses in order to maintain a mild (and for some, not so mild) addiction to alcohol; it’s a sunny day, it’s Christmas, it’s a cosy night in with a DVD, it’s a wild night out with the girls/boys. And adding weight to these excuses are the purveyors of alcoholic beverages, who are only involved because of the profits to be had in flogging the stuff – especially the supermarkets.

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Last night as I unwrapped my pizza from its packaging, my eyes fell upon the ‘Serving Suggestion’ provided on the corner of the box. Tesco were advising me of suitable accompaniments for my Finest Wood Fired 12″ Ham Mushroom And Mascarpone Pizza: a simple green salad and a glass of my favourite white wine. Really? Is there any need to consume an alcoholic drink with one’s pizza in order to bring out the taste? Is a pizza less of a pizza if it is washed down with a glass of water? In providing such a serving suggestion, Tesco are interested only in selling a lifestyle – the sophisticated Italian wine drinker, enjoying an ‘authentic’ pizza with a simple green salad whilst sitting in a piazza somewhere, a setting sun and the tinkling of an ancient fountain in the background. Tesco are keen to ‘sell up’ their pizza with this marketing twaddle because it is a highly effective means of getting the consumer to dig a little deeper into his or her pocket. Go on, buy the wine, buy the salad – make like an Italian for the evening (and forget the fact that, actually, you are sitting in a house in Sheffield, watching crap on the TV and listening to the howling wind and rain lashing against the front door).

As I watched the above-mentioned crap TV whilst munching on my pizza (and not feeling at all bereft by way of not enjoying a glass of my favourite white wine to accompany it) I suddenly found myself watching Aldi’s latest advert, in which the song ‘Favourite Things’ plays in soft, girly tones as a variety of wine bottles are displayed against a pretty pink backdrop. I felt incensed by Aldi’s blatant feminisation and glamorising of wine in such a manner, the way in which the supermarket has produced a couple of minutes of television that portrays wine as entirely innocent, almost childlike; a happy little beverage that goes hand-in-hand with fun-filled summer days and gay abandon.

There are people who drink in moderation, who consume alcohol ‘responsibly’. But there are an awful lot of people out there who do not and who are seeking out any excuse to down more of the stuff without facing up to the fact that they are, in reality, dependent upon it and regularly drinking at hazardous levels. While ever the supermarkets are allowed to market alcoholic beverages as innocuous products that bring only light and happiness to peoples’ lives as opposed to containing an addictive substance that should be treated with caution and which is detrimental to health in a major way unless consumed in very small quantities, alcohol and binge drinking will continue to be trivialised. And the health of a massive percentage of the population will remain compromised as a result.

Booze, football and a woman named Beverley. By Claire Blank

In the course of my work as Director of Social Media for Soberistas, I spend large portions of my time trawling the internet for information on alcohol; news articles, clinical journals, recovery and addiction services, healthy living websites and alcohol industry publications – I read them all. Sometimes I find it an uplifting, hopeful task and I’m buoyed with optimism and inspired by some of the people I speak to. At other times, I find it downright depressing. January 14th 2014 was most definitely in the latter category.

That day, a search of the news articles on the web threw up a story from my local newspaper about a Sheffield woman who is dying of end-stage alcoholic liver disease. The article was quickly picked up by a couple of national tabloids, who ran it with rather more salacious details and some accompanying photographs. They tell the story of Beverley Pickorer who is currently being treated for liver cirrhosis in a palliative care unit. She has four children (aged six to fifteen) who have been taken into care and who will soon be orphaned. Beverley’s partner Anthony describes how her drinking spiralled out of control after a series of troubled relationships in her twenties. He wants to get her discharged from the unit so she can “die in my arms at home.”

Beverley is thirty-five years old.

Photographs accompanying the article show her lying in a hospital bed, her broken skinny body bruised and yellowed. Her eyes are dark and heavy, her face etched with pain.

My next search takes me to the website of OffLicenceNews.co.uk – a website for retailers of alcoholic drinks. There I learn that drinks giant, Campari Group, has just signed a deal with Manchester United FC, which will see it advertising its ‘Aperol’ liqueur across digital boards at the club’s home matches until 2016/17.

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Campari Group’s Chief Executive, Bob Kunze-Concewitz, sounds understandably delighted, “With the club widely recognised as the most supported in the world, this is a partnership that will deliver brand exposure on a massive scale, helping to provide Aperol, and its signature drink Aperol Spritz, with excellent levels of year-round brand exposure, consumer engagement and promotional opportunities in developed and new global markets.

Manchester United is the most successful club in England and one of the most successful in the world, winning with style and panache, bringing millions of fans together in celebration. Similarly, Aperol is a brand that also embodies success, celebration and sociability. The natural fit between the two brands makes the partnership one that will bring continued success to both parties.”

After reading about Beverley’s impending death, Bob’s clinical sounding marketing-speak grates on me – ‘Natural fit between the brands?’ Forgive me, Bob, but I can think of better brand ‘fits’, like sportswear perhaps, or vitamin tablets, or sports nutrition products. But I’m sure you’re right about the partnership bringing ‘continued success to both parties’. A euphemism, if ever there was one!

As I read Bob’s gushing quote, I consider the young sports fans across the globe who love to watch football and who, by simply tuning in, are subconsciously being bombarded with the message that alcohol equals “success, celebration and sociability.” I can’t help but wonder about the kind of people at Manchester United who sign a deal with an alcohol retailer just eight years after George Best, arguably the most talented player ever signed by the club, died from complications arising from prolonged alcohol abuse. I wonder too about our Government which, by allowing alcohol advertising in sport to continue unimpeded, is tacitly telling young sports fans that sport and alcohol go together and it’s all OK.

And I can’t shake Beverley out of my head, dying in a hospice at the age of thirty-five. I wonder when alcohol stopped embodying “success, celebration and sociability” for her.

Our society pushes alcohol and condones its use like no other drug. We are told from an early age that drinking it is fun, necessary, sociable, and yet when the wheels fall off, as in Beverley’s case, we are at best pitied, at worst maligned and insulted.

Since Soberistas launched just over a year ago, we have seen our community grow to over twenty-thousand members, with approximately half of these based in the UK. That’s ten-thousand UK residents whose drinking has reached such levels that they have signed up to an online support group – ten-thousand potential Beverleys. Surely now is the time for our Government to step into the 21st century and take action to reduce alcohol related harm?

‘They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff’

Claire Blank writes for Soberistas – an insight into the marketing strategies employed by the alcohol industry

In 2009 the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC) carried out an analysis of a number of the alcohol industry’s internal advertising and marketing documents. The documents had been obtained by the Commons Health Select Committee as part of its investigation into the conduct of the UK alcohol industry. The report which was subsequently published by the AERC was entitled ‘They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff’ and was carried out by Professor Gerard Hastings of the University of Stirling and the Open University.

Before discussing the report in more detail, here’s what the Advertising Standard’s Agency’s code of practice says in relation to marketing alcohol. The code dictates that alcohol advertising must not;

a)      Link alcohol with seduction, sex or social success

b)      Link alcohol with irresponsible, anti-social, tough or daring behaviour

c)       Show alcohol being served irresponsibly

d)      Show people drinking and behaving in an adolescent or juvenile way, or reflecting the culture of people aged less than 18 years

As a university student in the 1990s, I grew up in an environment where the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol was entirely normal. I regularly took part in the University of Sheffield’s annual Rag Week ‘Pyjama Jump’ which was ostensibly a charity event but was, in reality, an organised mass piss-up. During the November event, the sight of eighteen-year-old boys dressed in women’s underwear and throwing up in the streets was par for the course, as were risky sexual encounters in pub toilets, girls flashing their breasts, and a plethora of booze-induced injuries. The jolly japes were brought to a close in the academic year 1996-1997, on the advice of the police and with the safety of students in mind.

Why I never stopped to question this behaviour was largely down to the fact that it was presented to me as normal. A few years later, following the end of my degree and my first graduate position, the excessive boozing continued apace – albeit with an aura of respectability. Never outwardly drunk, but regularly imbibing far more than the recommended government guidelines, alcohol was by now a staple part of life for me and my friendship group.

It was only after the birth of my son in my mid-thirties that I began to question my consumption. Partly as a result of a growing interest in fitness and my health, I then took steps to dramatically reduce the amount of alcohol that I drank.

I, along with many other women of my generation, have come to drink heavily largely as a result of the normalization of alcohol within western society, and in particular owing to our being swayed by the frighteningly successful advertising campaigns of the alcohol industry giants.

Professor Hasting’s report (despite it being no great surprise that alcohol manufacturers are intent on maximising the saleability of their products) highlights some questionable practices indeed. Hastings’ analysis shows that in some cases, the aim is not to ensure that drinkers switch from one brand to another, but rather it is to encourage new consumers to jump aboard the booze train. Research conducted on behalf of WKD found that there was a need to appeal to the ‘up-and-coming generation’ through the development of new products.

In 1986 when I was aged thirteen, Taunton launched Diamond White cider and it quickly became the beverage of choice amongst my circle of underage drinking friends. Boasting an ABV of 8.2%, Diamond White comfortably took hold of a 30% market share, 60% of their customers being female. Several years later, my friends and I transferred our booze allegiances to ‘K’ cider, attractively presented in a matt black bottle with a striking red letter ‘K’ on the label. In an article dated June, 1993, The Independent newspaper described cider as being ‘backed by slick advertising campaigns and packaged in shapes and colours designed to attract the young. Bottled cider is being presented as a product to be seen quaffing in the pub.’

The alcohol marketers certainly worked their magic on me. By the age of eighteen, shy and somewhat lacking in confidence, I was a regular binge-drinker of cider, secure in the knowledge that this particular choice of beverage helped me to fit in, appear sophisticated and feel more outgoing.

Professor Hastings’ report makes it clear that the student demographic, and especially freshers, represents a key target audience for several alcohol brands. In the documents, WKD defined its typical consumer as ‘Aged 18-25, chavs and students’ while Carling proposed a greater focus on students as ‘a core recruitment audience.’ Lambrini in 2004/5 suggested a ‘launch in Fresher’s Week, to act as a hit on students.’ The language employed in many of the marketing documents referred to in the AERC report is clearly aimed at the youth market, with terminology such as ‘lads’, ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ being commonplace.

Professor Hastings’ analysis demonstrates that in many instances, not only do the alcohol marketers actively attempt to draw in the young, but once their attention has been caught, they are encouraged to drink to excess. Numerous references to ‘getting pissed’, ‘blasted’, and ‘getting messy’ are made throughout the documents, with one brand, Sidekick, referring to shots being used to ‘crank up the evening’, ‘accelerate the process of getting drunk’, and as being a useful method of reducing the volume of liquid required in becoming inebriated.

The strategizing utilised to persuade people to begin their drinking careers in earnest at a young age does not stop with the kind of tactics described above. The widespread sponsorship of events by alcohol companies is now a routinely-used marketing tool – think Diageo’s creation, ‘Arthur’s Day’ in Ireland, or Carling’s sponsorship of football and music events. As Hastings points out, ‘…producers and agencies regard sponsorship as a powerful strategy for building brand awareness and attracting new recruits to the product.’

For me, the most sinister example of the way in which the alcohol industry is trying to engage with and pull in a fresh, new audience lies in its use of new media. Whilst technically, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency, they are notoriously difficult to monitor. Hastings’ report highlights how both WKD and Smirnoff (et al) have latched on to new media as an effective way to reach the younger potential consumer. A quick scan through WKD’s current followers on Twitter reveals that many are below the age of eighteen. Take Daisy for instance, who refers to being in Year Ten (aged fourteen/fifteen), Shann who states that she is just thirteen, and Aaliyah, who is pictured dressed in her school uniform and professes her love of Disney and Nickelodeon.

Last week, a BBC Radio 5 Live investigation revealed a considerable increase in the number of children who were admitted to A&E units across the UK last year following excessive alcohol consumption – in total, 6,500 under-18s during the period 2012-3. Frighteningly, 293 children aged eleven or under attended A&E with alcohol-related conditions. Despite statistical evidence pointing towards a reduction in the numbers of children drinking now than several years ago, it would appear that the ones who are drinking are doing so in vaster quantities. And girls are engaging in such behaviour in greater numbers than their teenage male counterparts, a reversal of the past trend.

Children learn behaviour from a variety of different sources, but one thing is for certain – if we are witnessing a rise in the damaged health of the younger generations as a direct result of alcohol, the patterns of binge-drinking in the UK are not being curbed: rather, they are intensifying. Despite Professor Hastings’ report being four years old, perhaps now is a good time to take another look at his findings and put in place tougher restrictions that the alcohol industry must adhere to. Let’s stop pretending that excessive alcohol consumption is normal and OK – it isn’t.