Friday 26 December 2014

How the advertisers convinced us to double our drinking

1.35 million of us are consuming "harmful" quantities of alcohol while 177,000 of us are dependent drinkers.

Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30

Irish football supporters have a drink before a qualifying game in Germany
Irish football supporters have a drink before a qualifying game in Germany
John Geraghty
Brendan Behan

The figures, when they were released on Monday, made for stark reading: 1.35 million of us are consuming "harmful" quantities of alcohol while 177,000 of us are dependent drinkers, according to findings from the Health Research Board.

With each of us downing an average of almost 11 litres of pure alcohol per annum, it is little wonder that the so-called Irish disease seems to be entrenched.

But the notion that we were always a nation of heavy drinkers is not borne out by the facts. In the early 1960s – an era famed for alcoholics like Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh – the Irish drank just five litres of pure alcohol per person.

"Alcohol and a sense of Irishness have become so enmeshed in the way the Irish drinks companies have marketed their products that it would be easy to think that it's always been part of who we are, but that's not the case," says Conor Cullen of Alcohol Action Ireland.

"In 1960 we were drinking less than half the pure alcohol we consume today and less than a third of the amount we drank in 2001 when alcohol consumption peaked in this country. The reasons the consumption figures rose quickly in the ensuing decades are down to marketing, availability and pricing. Drink advertising and sponsorship really kicked off in the 1960s, the number of outlets where you could buy alcohol increased significantly and alcohol became much cheaper, especially in the off-trade and in cut-price supermarkets who might sell them as loss-leaders."

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Before the 1960s, alcohol advertising was virtually non-existent by today's standards. Guinness's first Irish ad campaign was in 1959 – for the company's bicentenary. Just £900 was allocated.

By the 1970s, Guinness was leading the way when it came to advertising its drink with several ads targeting women drinkers – a hitherto largely untapped market – as well as the now classic television ad, featuring a currach and the strapline, "Tá said ag teacht!"

Some drinks ads in the 1960s even centred on the notion of The Sponger – a person who was unwilling to buy their round. It was little wonder that by the end of the 1970s, public health advocates were warning that the round system had got dangerously out of hand.

The advent of a new breed of supermarkets in the 1960s, including Quinnsworth and Superquinn also helped make alcohol more accessible, and affordable, to many.

"With the exception of pubs and hotels, there were comparatively few places to buy alcohol 50 or so years ago," Cullen says. "But today, you can buy alcohol in filling stations, convenience stores, the list goes on. And there's no getting away from advertising – whether it's in newspapers, television or online, or in sponsorship."

If female drinkers were a comparatively rare breed in the middle part of the 20th century and were not served in some patriarchal pubs, they have certainly caught up today. "From about 1995 we've seen a trend where young women are drinking as much and as frequently as young men, and in some cases they're drinking more," Cullen says. "The increase in the level of liver cirrhosis in young women is quite frightening."

He cites a much reported leak from Canadian drinks giant Coors whose marketing department was attempting to create "a world where women love beer as much as they love shoes".

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And, Cullen says, the role of price should not be discounted: "Whenever the excise duty goes up, we see consumption going down. And the opposite is true as well."

Despite the huge differential between our average consumption today and that of a half-century ago, the significant drop since 2001 is welcomed by health advocates.

John Geraghty, the founder of the website Publin.ie which aims to advise consumers on special offers in the Dublin pub trade, believes today's consumption figures – which mirrors those of continental Europe – reflect the more sophisticated approach of drinkers today.

"There's much less of the drink-to-get-drunk culture you might have seen 10 years ago," he says. "A lot of people are choosing to drink at home or if they drink when they're out, it's with food, and not just drink alone. Others are actively opting to drink less. That's certainly the case with myself and many of my friends – we're still going out, but we're drinking in moderation. I'm definitely seeing less of the mayhem on the streets that you might have had in the boom years."

If lager came of age in the 1960s and wine in the 1980s, Geraghty believes this is the era of the craft beer – and says some of the pubs that are doing best in a deflated market are those who have embraced such bespoke brews, as well as offering food and wi-fi.

"Pubs have to work an awful lot harder now to get business," he says, "and when I have meetings with them, I'm often told that they feel they are competing with Netflix and cafes."

Evelyn Jones has also noticed enormous change in the 23 years since establishing her off-licence, The Vintry, in Rathgar, Dublin. "Consumption has declined over the last 10 years, and there are so many reasons – from random breath tests to the demise of the pub," says Jones, president of the National Off-Licence Association. "People are more health-conscious and are often opting to buy drinks with lower alcohol quantities.

"I had a customer who was returning a bottle of wine because it was 14pc. [in absolute alcohol]"

Jones believes "we Irish have a tendency to beat ourselves up" when it comes to talk of alcohol consumption and that binge-drinking only represents a fraction of the Irish drinking public. "It's a misconception that we all drink to excess. Our consumption per person is lower than it is in France."

But Alcohol Action Ireland believes we should be aiming to cut down our drinking that bit further. "Getting to know what a unit of alcohol looks like is important," Conor Cullen says.

"Too often we kid ourselves about how much we drink. We need to get real."

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