News Comment

Tuesday 16 September 2014

We equate drink with fitness, success, prowess, sex and celebrity in a sinister, paradoxical alliance

Marie Murray

Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30

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Jack Wilshere

The most recent research on the influence and impact of our national addiction to alcohol reminds us, yet again, that as a nation we drink too much and that our young people are in particular physical and psychological danger. Not that research is required when the sight of people in city streets vomiting into gutters is proof that drinking is out of control.

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We are soused in drink in a culture that celebrates life and mourns its dead with drink. We 'crown' the arrival of the young into the world with drink. We christen them with drink and no important life event goes without the 'celebratory drink'. We are addicted to idealised images of ourselves through which we have equated being 'manky' with being manly, being 'hammered' with humour and being 'flootered' with fun, in an elaborate vocabulary of denial about 'the fierce drinker', the 'great drinker', the 'hard man who can hold his drink' and the woman who is 'fond of a drop'.

Generations have suffered through our denial of the danger of 'the drop' and the reality of 'being under the influence'. If we ask why young people drink, the answer is clear – they drink because we drink, the way we have taught them.

But if we have an unhealthy relationship with drink, we also have an unhealthy relationship between sports and the drinks industry. Successive governments have failed to curtail the toxic association between drink and sport. They have allowed the drinks industry to sponsor sport despite the research that also shows how such advertising entices, encourages, inspires and associates alcohol with life, vitality, health and heroism on the pitch.

Sports sponsorship by the alcohol industry comes to millions but we kick to touch the reality of this psychological influence. Being 'under the influence' of the drinks industry means that we equate alcohol with fitness, control, sex, success, celebrity and prowess in a sinister, paradoxical psychological alliance between two entirely contradictory influences. There can be no greater contrast than that between the skilled sportsman and the staggering, slurred grandiosity of the drunk.

When it comes to sport, TV advertising has a far stronger correlation with brand value than other media. Advertisers are well aware of the authority, stature and benefits of 'TV events advertising' that brings us all together in front of screens in shared emotional identity and endeavour.

The World Cup fever that has hit us all is a fine example – the thrill of the match, the emotional involvement in every move, the anticipation of the next match, the cheering and challenge and camaraderie of it all is wonderful but it is also interspersed with images of drink.

TV events that create emotion have extra cachet for advertisers. Just think of the awe, admiration and enthusiasm of the young GAA fan gazing at his or her idols alongside visible but subliminal advertising for beverages that are the antithesis of sport.

We have just emerged from the extended emotional farewell to some of our most revered Irish rugby heroes but drink promotion was prominent in that too.

Of course, every club has its bar and every shirt its logo and the marketing industries have known full well what they are doing when in the height of emotion we associate the goal with the logo, the emotion with the drink, the event with the taste of success and of alcohol and feelings of belonging. Brand loyalty can be created and maintained by the psychological association between sport and alcohol.

But being 'under the influence' has a dark side when we realise that we are 'under the influence' of the drinks industry at the deepest of psychological levels and it is ethically questionable that psychological knowledge, insight and strategies should be exploited in the service of such marketing.

But let's face it, drinking is not a healthy pursuit. Drinking is not sport.

It is not fun for the observers of it in excess. It is not belonging, achievement, skill, motivation, sociability, sex or success. It is often a lonely, isolated occupation and a danger to oneself and others.

Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist, author and broadcaster

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