We are all looking forward to Christmas, right? It’s the season of goodwill after all. A time when we all get together with friends and family to have a good time. What’s not to like?
Of course, while most of us will be looking forward to the Festive Season, it’s not great for everyone. What about those people who have a problem with alcohol and who are trying to cut down or even quit? How do you do that when temptation is everywhere you look? On television. In supermarkets. On every street corner. Even delivered to you automatically when you are on your phone or computer.
Or those children whose parents are dependent on alcohol, somewhere in the region of 200,000 in England alone, according to recent estimates? Or even those estimated three million children in the UK whose parents have ‘one too many’? What is Christmas like for them?
What about ambulance drivers who have to pick up the pieces when things go a little too far? In a recent survey of North East ambulance staff carried out by Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, almost one third reported that half or more of the incidences they deal with over the Christmas period involves alcohol, with half saying that most call-outs for assaults involved alcohol. Or the police trying to deal with people in our city centres? Or fire crews who have to cut people from car wrecks after a collision involving someone who has been drink driving?
You can be sure who is looking forward to Christmas – the alcohol industry. It is bonanza time for Big Alcohol. They will have been planning for months for the end of 2022. After all, they don’t only have Christmas to look forward to, they also have the men’s football World Cup. You could say all their Christmases have come at once.
By now we are all familiar with the power, breadth and creativity of marketing expertise demonstrated by all sectors of the alcohol industry as Christmas gets close. Already the big retail companies are unveiling their new TV advertisements. As the big day gets closer we will be inundated with price-driven special offers on our screens.
No sooner have the Halloween displays been removed in supermarkets than they are being replaced by Christmas displays which invariably feature alcohol at their heart. We will be encouraged to stock up early, especially as money is tight. They will remind us that we ‘deserve a treat’ in such difficult times.
For months magazines have been bombarding us with alcohol ‘best of’ lists to help us prepare for Christmas. As we start choosing cards for our loved ones we will be hard-pressed to find anything which doesn’t feature a gin-centred pun.
All of this is incredibly damaging. It tells all of us – and most worryingly our children – that you can’t have fun, have friends, be attractive unless booze is at the very centre of your Christmas celebrations.
It wasn’t always like this. My parents never had a breakfast Bucks Fizz. They didn’t buy gin-themed advent calendars. The modern Christmas has been created in part by the alcohol industry – and most of us don’t give it a second thought.
Government partnership with the industry
The alcohol industry doesn’t stop at encouraging us to put their products at the heart of our family Christmas. They also play their part in demonising us if things get a little out of hand.
Once again this year the Government’s official Christmas drink drive campaign, THINK!, has partnered with alcohol company Diageo to encourage us not to drink and drive over the festive period. Just think about that for a moment. The Government partnering with Guinness and Captain Morgan to tackle drink driving.
The campaign has used influencer and reality TV star Sam Thompson to target younger male drivers. It even uses the opportunity to promote Guinness 0.0 as a non-alcoholic alternative, effectively securing Government endorsement for its brand.
The campaign reminds them that ‘a mate doesn’t let a mate drink drive’. In other words, drink driving is the problem of the individual drinker and their friends, not the company spending millions to promote their health-damaging products.
Christmas plays right into the heart of the corporate responsibility strategies of global alcohol corporations such as Diageo. It enables them to promote ‘moderation’ and ‘responsible drinking’, terms which are rarely defined by brands in their promotions material.
Worse than that, it convinces Governments that – despite all the evidence to the contrary – alcohol companies are part of the solution to alcohol harm, not the cause of the problem. It has convinced them that we don’t need a new alcohol strategy which tackles the affordability, availability and desirability of alcohol.
You could argue that campaigns such as the THINK! partnership are even more important than the millions spent on brand advertising as they ward off regulation.
At the moment it seems that alcohol companies are succeeding in having their Christmas cake and eating it.
Written by Colin Shevills, Former Director of Balance and Special Adviser to the Alcohol Health Alliance.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.