Drinkwise Australia is one of those industry-funded bodies that does the corporate responsibility bit. In their case the big aim is to transform Australian drinking culture by championing the cause of moderation and so reduce harmful consumption patterns. “Yeah… and good luck with that!”, I hear you murmur.

But hold on a minute. The Drinkwise people down under have teamed up with their advertising pals at Clemenger Group (“Australasia’s most successful marketing communications company” no less) and the partnership have just released a striking new campaign called “How To Drink Properly”. And, in their words not mine, “It’s classy as fuck”.

The ads are based on the simple and sociologically savvy premise that health behaviour change propaganda needs to be couched in the cultural idiom of the people it’s aimed at. And in this case, that’s the young Aussie boozers who are out for a good time, hopefully involving some social and sexual success along the way. So, rather than harping on about the boring stuff (liver failure, addiction, lives ruined), the Drink Properly campaign focuses on more immediate issues like getting a bad reputation, looking like an idiot and making a fool of yourself.


It’s all designed (you guessed this, didn’t you?) for viewing through YouTube and it’s plainly put together in an attempt to “go viral” (they also have a twitter feed to help this along – @drinkproperly ). So what’s not to like so far? Well – controversially, the messages are mostly handed out by a suave, debonair, James Bond figure who exhorts the viewer to espouse “drinking excellence” and not to be an “amateur”. There’s a high point with boozing, we are told, and after that it’s all very much downhill. The message is that smart people learn how to reach that high, but also know when and how to stop. And the whole campaign is very funny, beautifully animated and wonderfully foul-mouthed. You might even think that it’s classy as fuck.


And that’s the problem for some people. The campaign has been accused of masquerading as health promotion, while it is actually drink promotion. For health promotion practitioners at the more po-faced end of the profession (and that’s a pretty crowded place, believe me), the How to Drink Properly campaign commits the cardinal sin of accepting that alcohol can be fun and that drinking is a pretty normal thing to do in Australia. And, worse still, it doesn’t set down any guidelines about what constitutes too much alcohol. There are no numbers, no units and no moralistic homilies – just the general idea that, if you’re a clever cookie, you’ll work out what your consumption limit is. And by doing that, you’ll avoid those embarrassing moments when your head ends up in the loo, you wet your trousers or defecate on the stairs. (These all feature in the video series, if you haven’t watched them all yet!).

Proponents of this sort of thing hold that, if you work within the context and cultural constructs of your target audience, you may succeed in reducing damaging consumption and possibly overall consumption. Just because you’ve done it by appealing to humour and young people’s social anxieties rather than by lecturing them about fatty liver disease doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you’ve done it.

An anonymous blogger on media and marketing site ‘mumbrella’ noted:- “As someone in the target demographic who has a peer group that drinks excessively, this hits the mark. There is no ‘don’t do this, do this’, consequences etc. The advertisement encourages reflection on drinking habits, and starts a conversation within these peer groups.” And that kind of view can also be found in the comments appearing over the last few days on Australian newspaper websites. Responding to a negative article on the Herald Sun site, blogger “James” disagreed with the outraged journalist, arguing that “It promotes responsible drinking. You will not stop these kids drinking, but if you can convince them to do it responsibly, you are half way there.”

Those on the anti side of the fence feel that any campaign that proposes a “realm of drinking excellence” is already promoting the consumption of a dangerous drug, whatever it goes on to say after that. They accuse Drinkwise Australia of using the smoke-screen of health promotion to portray alcohol use as sexy and cool. And that makes the videos nothing more than drink commercials, but free of the regulations that govern classic booze adverts.

The controversy surrounding the campaign goes to the heart of current debates about behavioural health promotion. Can you be too user-group-focused? If you work completely within the culture of the target population, are you not likely to “go native” and lose sight of the health message altogether? When does a “harm reduction” approach become complicit in the behaviour itself? Can commercial interests be trusted to publicise adequately the damaging aspects of their products and services? Should all substance-related health promotion be modelled on tobacco smoking campaigns and aim to eventually eradicate the target behaviour completely? Or should campaigns about culturally-embedded foods and drinks take a more softly-softly approach and promulgate messages of ‘appropriate behaviour’ and ‘moderation’? Would the Drinkwise Australia campaign be acceptable if it was about cannabis or cocaine? (Although I should point out here that the Columbian Cartels haven’t yet got round to funding “Snortwise” – but never say never…)