Swallowing spin is bad for your health

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

16 February 2017

I’ve long been a believer that as an industry we need to watch our attitude to booze; to accept that there is a responsibility to selling (and writing about) the stuff, and that unalloyed hedonism is not a sustainable lifestyle choice.

As such, I try to give the various health bodies a fair hearing when they are trying to catch my attention with a new bit of research.

Often I don’t like what they say, but if I think it has merit, I’d like to think that I’m sufficiently impartial to be able to recognise this, and have often said as much – frequently to the dismay of my peers in the drinks world.

But too often these studies are flimsy attention-seekers, funded by health groups, and designed to use the veneer of science to push a political agenda.

...the latest research proves that ‘Drinkers Ignore Responsible Drinking Messages in [the] Pub Environment’.

And it’s into precisely this camp that the latest effort from a team of psychologists at London South Bank University, funded (natch) by Alcohol Concern falls.

According to the headline on the press release, the latest research proves that ‘Drinkers Ignore Responsible Drinking Messages in [the] Pub Environment’.

It came from experiments where volunteers were placed in a mocked-up pub, which contained ‘responsible drinking’ posters, and their attention monitored with eye-tracking technology.

It’s safe to say that the results were not earth-shattering.

The poster apparently received only 16% as many glances in the pub as it did in a plain room, leading our team of psychologists to deduce that people are ‘much less likely’ to notice these notices in a busy pub than they are in ‘a plain and simple room like a doctor’s surgery.’

I know. People paid them money to work this out.

There’s more. Volunteers apparently looked at their drinks ‘eight times more’ than at the poster, tutted the researchers. Given that a) ‘to buy drink’ is the reason people go into a pub, and b) it’s sitting right in front of them, I’d say this isn’t exactly news either.

As for the bombshell that the poster works better in a sterile environment…

Frankly, in a Doctor’s surgery I’ll read anything while I wait to be seen. Old copies of the People’s Friend, kids’ books, leaflets on varicose veins...

This research has, frankly, proved what we already knew: that in a busy environment (such as a pub, though it would have been interesting to try it in a tube station) people don’t read posters much; but that in a quiet environment, they do.

The conclusion for me would, therefore, be that ‘sensible drinking’ posters are most effectively employed in quiet, boring places rather than lively, buzzy ones.

...in a busy environment (such as a pub, though it would have been interesting to try it in a tube station) people don’t read posters much

The report, however, draws a different conclusion, suggesting that ‘responsible drinking messages may not always be the most effective way to get people to drink in a more controlled manner’.

Say what?

What is ineffective is putting a message in a non-conducive environment, not the whole idea of responsible drinking messages per se.

And the same, of course, could be said for any marketing or educational campaign. If you stick warnings about pension fraud in a school magazine I doubt the impact would be huge either.

So, a non-story with a questionable conclusion. Should we ignore it?

Well, yes and no. The story itself might be worth passing over, but the reason for its appearance is not.

The health lobby will almost certainly try to use this flimsy research down the line to neuter those who claim that education and PR campaigns can positively impact alcohol consumption, and hustle MPs and public opinion towards what has always been its end-game:  minimum unit pricing.

You have been warned.

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