One for the road
Dealing with the real issues around Irish society’s dysfunctional relationship with alcohol will probably mean more set-tos like last week
It’s probably safe enough to return to the issue a week later for some final analysis. The backlash against the backlash has largely receded. The people who went around shouting “killjoys” and “dry shites” at those who called shenanigans on a multinational company’s efforts to shift two million pints of alcohol in one night have found other things to do. The backlash by vested parties (including musicians, journalists and broadcasters very clearly in the pay of those multinationals) against the backlash of citizens is over for now. All quiet on the Guinness front.
You can be sure, though, that the Diageo people are talking about Arthur’s Day a lot this week. In offices and rooms in Dublin and London, long and frank post-mortems are underway about what happened and what’s to come. That they got away with Arthur’s Day for four years and the sale of millions of pints (the only objective of this initiative) before the backlash kicked in may well colour the debate, but the scale and spread of the move against the company last week will certinly give cause for pause.
It’s not every day that your company get to feature on the front page of the New York Times website, though you’d usually prefer that it wasn’t about this. It’s also not every day that your representatives are called upon to talk about the company on every radio show and TV show on the schedule, but it’s not great when all they can do is recite chapter and verse from the company’s marketing code. Every time a Diageo man or woman appeared on a radio or TV show last week, they were haughty, aloof, snotty, angry and annoyed. It was not a good look.
I’d be surprised if this advertisement for alcohol abuse returns next year, but you can be sure there will be many involved who will be bullish enough to want to do it again. Many will see the backlash as something which can be ignored. Many will point to the fact that the pubs were packed, the tills were ringing and everyone went home happy (or not, if you were one of those who ended up in hospital on the night). But something tells me we may have seen the last of Arthur’s Day as we’ve known it.
Yet with any luck, Arthur’s Day will have a legacy, though it probably won’t be the one the brewer wants. One of the most interesting takeaways from last week’s debate was seeing how unwilling people were to discuss Irish society’s relationship with drink. Mealy-mouthed references urging you to “drink responsibly” or talk about personal responsibility when it comes to drink consumption are no substitute for actually teasing out just why alcohol is such a massive issue here. The facts are easily available and they’re pretty staggering. Yet you have people making jokes and going for easy laughs on shows like Prime Time rather than asking why this is the case – and why we accept that this is the case.
The huge resources employed by the breweries are one reason for this oddly shaped debate. They supply the pubs, buy the ads and sponsor arts and sports events up and down the country so many feel it’s wrong to cast aspersions on the piper who calls the tunes (DOI: I’ve worked for drinks companies in the past). There’s also the fact that alcohol is so ingrained in the fabric of our society that it seems normal for many to over-indulge because that’s the way it has always been. We drink to celebrate. We drink to drown our sorrows. We drink because it’s a Thursday. We drink because it’s wine o’clock. We drink full stop.
Yet for all the money and direct and indirect jobs provided by the drinks industry, there’s a massive amount of harm caused by those who abuse their products and the evidence is clearly there to back this statement up. Yesterday’s editorial in Irish Medical News stated that one in four emergency department attendances are alcohol related, Arthur’s Day caused a 30 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs and alcoholic liver disease and related deaths have more doubled in the past 20 years due of alcohol abuse, particularly among young people. You can also see this thread about the society-wide harm and damage caused by alcohol running clearly through Conor Pope’s recent report on a night spent in the emergency department of a Dublin hospital.
All of which makes you wonder why we shirk away from the bigger debate. Sure, some of the arguments against the harm caused by alcohol have been aired in the last 10 days – only a minority of people turn the emergency departments into drunk tanks, while the majority use alcohol in a relatively responsible way etc – but these arguments deflect from the bigger questions which are rarely asked and never answered. Just why does Ireland have this crazily dysfunctional and ongoing problem in the first place? And, more importantly, why are we so afraid to just even talk about it without throwing red herrings and indignation and strawmen into the mix? Why do we have to wait for a set-to like Arthur’s Day and the much more insidious Arthur Guinness Projects for this debate to even make it to the table in the first place?
It’s highly unlikely that matters will change any time soon. As a society, we all have an interest in this debate, but it’s those vested financial interests who control the narrative and who spin and deflect the story. The government’s plans to ban the sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies is probably going to be the next battleground for this debate, but don’t expect a discussion of any real substance around the real issues. We just don’t seem to want to do that kind of thing here. Not until the next media cycle comes around, anyway.