Friday, August 19, 2005

I demand to have some booze

Last week there was a bit of bother over some changes to the licensing laws. These new laws don't actually apply in Scotland, (we've been getting p*ssed up at all hours for years) but that's not going to stop me sharing my thoughts on the subject. This might verge on half baked philosophy pie. Or it might just be sheer unadulterated waffle.

A little bit of background. I lived in the Netherlands for 4 years, from the age of 15 onwards, so I've experienced the fabled continental "cafe culture". In my experience it is most certainly not a myth. I made frequent trips back to Aberdeen to see my friends and family, and the difference in attitudes to alchohol was as good an example of culture shock as you'll ever find. In the Netherlands, I tended to be the most drunk individual in almost any social situation. In Aberdeen, I was considered an amateur. I moved back to Aberdeen permanently in 1990 where I continued to drink copiously in the traditional manner of my countrymen and women. I stopped enjoying it. About 2 years ago I basically stopped drinking altogether. Not religiously, mind. I will occassionaly have a beer, and did get rather drunk the Christmas before last. It's just that I find it very difficult to drink in moderation, and have developed a rather unfortunate ability to remember details of the previous night's bender which would often best be forgotten. It's not that I'm an alchoholic, and I never got into fights or caused any trouble. I just got very drunk and stupid almost every time I decided to have a few ales. As I write this, I don't think I've had an alcoholic drink for at least six months.

Before the waffle, it's always worth reminding ourselves that I am only able to blog, and you are only able to read this, because our lives are comfortable. I've said it before but it tends to be overlooked too often, including by me I have to say. What we have now, in 2005, in the developed world, is almost unheard of in the history of us. Very few people, ever, have lived the kind of pampered lives we now enjoy. So, I think we should all just dry our eyes and appreciate that once in a while. And now, back to the feature presentation.

When I came back from the Netherlands, I'd have said that the changes propsed by the government were a good thing. Now, I not so sure. The thing is, if you go in to Aberdeen town centre at chucking out time, (I was going to say at the weekend but really almost any evening would do), and you're sober, it won't take you long to spot that there is something dramatically wrong with our society. It is not pretty. And it's not a "minority" of troublemakers either. Although the licensing laws are different in Scotland, everything I've read suggests that this would apply equally well in almost any town or city in the UK. If you live in the UK, why not give it a go one night? Walk through the centre of your town stone cold sober just as all the pubs close. A word of advice though: you might want to take a big stick along (for use in self defence only). A small carrot is unlikely to be of any great use however.

So, what's causing all these people to drink themselves silly on such a freqent basis? It's a complex problem and not one I'm going to be able to answer in a blog post. The following is just one aspect of the problem, and perhaps not even the largest one. I do think it's part of the reason why binge drinking has become more of a problem in recent years. It's advertising. And I don't mean advertising for alcoholic drinks, although I do find the industry habit of doing this:
Drink! Drink! Drink!
pretty laughable. No, I mean all advertising, all TV advertising in particular. One of the oddities of advertising is that most people don't seem to think it affects them personally. Even the industry likes to play it down on occassion. Well, I'm going to admit that I am influenced by advertising. In fact, it took me a good many years to understand just how much I'd been influenced. Hands up who agrees. Consider that it's a multi-billion dollar industry, and consider that their customers are mostly very successfully businesses. They are not spending this money for fun. Advertising works. It gets inside our brains and has a good poke around.

And what messages do adverts plant inside our brains when we're not paying attention? They try to generate a need. In order to do this they encourage dissatisfaction, normally with whatever inferior product you currently own. This car is faster than your old rust bucket, this MP3 player is better than your crappy old Mini Disc, this supermarket is far better value than your pricey local shop, you smell like yesterdays scrambled eggs but this new aftershave will have women throwing themselves at you...
And so it goes on. There is always something new and improved, something you must have, something better than what you've got. Dissatisfaction guaranteed. It gets worse though. Adverts don't just create a need for the product, but for the accompanying lifestyle as well. This is perhaps an unintended consequence but it's there all the same.

In many cases, this need, for both product and lifestyle, cannot be fulfilled and that's the real problem. If we could all afford to go out and buy the products and the lifestyle (continually for ever), the dissatisfaction could be satisfied. As it is, many people end up instilled with a completely false sense that their lives are not complete, simply because they don't have the latest widgit or hoojeryflip. And in the short term of everyday life, drinking helps to fill that void. We'll never have the money to drive the car we really want*, or own the house we feel we deserve, so we might as well get completely hammered as often as possible.

That's a simplification, as I've already said, but I do believe there's more than a grain of truth there. We are presented with dissatisfaction, and dissatisfied we have become. What a surprise. I'm normally reasoanably liberal but in this case I believe that there's a strong case for greater regulation of the advertising industry. Not that it's ever likely to happen. This government is under the spell of big business in a way that even the Tories at their worst couldn't match. It's not something you're likely to hear many people in the media calling for either.
Coming soon: Our six part in-depth investigation into how advertisers, our customers, the people who pay our wages, are making us unhappy.
No, I can't see it. An ideal subject for the BBC actually, except that they'd be accused of a rabid left wing bias by just about every other media outlet, who all coincidentally have a vested interest in the status quo. And I do understand that advertising plays a key role in economic growth. That isn't really the point. At one time, having children working in coal mines was good for the economy. These days, I doubt many people think that was a good idea.

*I don't actually own a car btw. I do occassionaly drive H2O's car though.

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