Home   Contact Phil   

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
March 16, 2010



Social norms: an alternative to 'health terrorism'?

Apart from legal restrictions on the supply of drink, what you might think of as various forms of partial prohibition, the main way of pursuing a public alcohol policy, and the drinks industry's own strategy of choice, is through social marketing.

A shocking - in more than one sense - example of this is the current NHS ad campaign. As one speaker at last week's Social Norms and Student Drinking conference put it, this fear-based approach is a kind of "health terrorism".

The alternative to scaring people into drinking less, put forward at the conference*, is to encourage 'good' behaviours by representing what's 'normal', the idea being that people tend to do what other people do.

Research shows there is a general misapprehension, not surprising when you think of the problem inflation touted by medical temperance and the mainsream media, that people drink more than they actually do. Simply by having the facts, they adjust their own behaviour to bring them more closely into line with what they now know to be the norm.

Reports from the United States suggest this works, but it hasn't been tried much over here. The Best Bar None scheme arguably comes under the category of social norms marketing but mostly we get scare tactics, which some research has revealed to be counter-productive. (See, for example, a recent blog by American beer writer Jay Brooks.)

Drinks industry representatives at the conference were quite excited by the social norms alternative, and it's certainly an improvement on fear.

Personally, I have my doubts. Won't it be boring? Effective advertising relies on making images and messages jump out from the communications noise. A 'norm', by definition, is not going to do that by itself. And I am, of course, sceptical about health promotion in general.

Still, social norms are worth discussing further and exploring what a such an approach for alcohol might look like. If you're hoping the health lobby might get on board with the idea, though, think again.

Because as far as medical temperance is concerned, it's the norms that are all wrong.

The theory at the heart of temperance ideology is that overall alcohol consumption determines the amount of alcohol problems a population experiences. But what is the mechanism by which that happens?

Lacking anything more substantial, temperance resorts to social norms. It's the fact that drinking is so damned normal in our society that causes people to drink to hazardous levels. Social norms marketing is the last thing they want.

*Conference documents can be downloaded from the Noctis website

Back to diary archive



Writing... Journalism... Research... Awards Judging... Pub Business Advice... Pub Crawls
Contact Phil