Social marketing, individual responsibility and the “culture of intoxication"

Isabelle Szmigin, Andrew Bengry-Howell, Christine Griffin, Chris Hackley, Wilm Mistral

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Purpose – Social marketing initiatives designed to address the UK’s culture of unhealthy levels of drinking among young adults have achieved inconclusive results to date. The paper aims to investigate the gap between young people’s perceptions of alcohol consumption and those of government agencies who seek to influence their behaviour set within a contextualist framework.
Design/methodology/approach – The authors present empirical evidence from a major study that suggests that the emphasis of recent campaigns on individual responsibility may be unlikely to resonate with young drinkers. The research included a meaning-based and visual rhetoric analysis of 261 ads shown on TV, in magazines, on billboards and on the internet between 2005 and 2006. This
was followed by 16 informal group discussions with 89 young adults in three locations.
Findings – The research identified the importance of the social context of young people’s drinking. The research reveals how a moral position has been culturally constructed around positioning heavy drinking as an individual issue with less regard to other stakeholders and how the marketing agents function in this environment. Calls to individual responsibility in drinking are unlikely to succeed in the current marketing environment.
Research limitations/implications – The qualitative research was limited to three geographical locations with young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
Practical implications – The authors explore implications for social marketing theory and for UK alcohol policy. In particular, the authors suggest that the social norms surrounding young people’s drinking need to be acknowledged and built into “sensible” social marketing campaigns. The authors suggest that shame, fear and guilt appeals should be replaced with more constructive methods of ensuring young people’s safety when they drink.
Originality/value – From the theoretical perspective of contextualism, the paper brings together empirical research with young adults and a critical analysis of recent social marketing campaigns within the commercial context of a “culture of intoxication”. It provides both a critique of social marketing in a neo-liberal context and recognition of issues involved in excessive alcohol consumption.
Keywords Alcoholic drinks, Social marketing, Public health, Youth, Individual behaviour,
United Kingdom
Paper type Research paper
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)759-779
JournalEuropean Journal of Marketing
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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