Calling the Shots

How much free will do we really have over our desires?

Working within advertising, I have this tendency to wryly describe what I do to earn a crust as “using my powers for evil”. Almost anything goes in adland. Boobies and bums are used to sell everything from books to burgers, kids who still believe a giant bunny brings them chocolate once a year are slammed with the full seductive force of marketing. If I think about it hard enough, I end up pouring myself a big glass of wine and entertaining wildly erratic thoughts of retraining in a more noble profession.

Unfortunately, that big glass of wine makes me wonder about the extent to which I’ve been brainwashed by marketing more than anything else.

I managed to make a complete and total tit of myself after a few too many drinkies last weekend, which is hardly a new occurrence. In the latest chapter of my ongoing and tempestuous saga with the bottle, I was dismissive and rude to Biker’s brother’s girlfriend, which is hardly going to endear me to his family. And just to make it extra cringeworthy, the very reason I had a few more drinks than usual was so I could be more friendly and talk more easily. I tend to clam up completely when meeting a new boyfriend’s family. I worry so much about saying the wrong thing that I come across as cold and unwelcoming.

But instead of doing the smart thing and trying to chill the fuck out and be myself, I turned to the turps. And therein lies the problem. Drunk Jem is much more outgoing, fun and confident than Sober Jem. She also tends to be erratic, inappropriate, messy and (on occasion) a complete out and out bitch.

Advertising shows us that getting thunderboozed leads only to awesome places. You’ll dance wildly with really attractive people who all think you’re super cool. You’ll be flirted with by sultry-eyed men with perfectly sculpted six-packs, or wasp-waisted girls in bikinis with huge knockers. You’ll have the best of fun times with the best of friends, and all will be merry and bright and sexy.

Of course we realise on a conscious level that these images are fantasy. We all know drink has a dark side. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve been led to believe so strongly for so long in the magic social powers of piss that we subconsciously downplay the bad times and over-emphasise the good.

In alcohol adland, nobody gets punched in the face by boozed-up meatheads looking for a scrap. Nobody drives drunk and writes off their car and injures their mates, or has to go to hospital for a stomach pumping. Nobody ruins a friendship because the alchy melts away their brain-to-mouth speech filter. Nobody ends up chundering their guts out in the middle of wedding speeches, or calls up their ex-partner and cries pathetically. Nobody wakes up the next day with a thumping headache and spends the whole day gacking up stomach acid.

Like all good marketing fibs, the story we’re told about alcohol works so well precisely because it contains a truth at its core. Binge drinking can be fun. It’s spontaneous and exciting, it chucks a spanner in the works of otherwise predictable social gatherings and mixes everything up.

But when I ask myself truly, honestly, if the good I get from binge drinking outweighs the bad, the answer is a stark (if rather sulky) ‘no’ … quickly followed by ‘but I don’t want to be a social outsider’. I suspect there are many many others out there like me. We want so badly to believe in the fantasy we’re sold that we go along with the herd and deny the strength of our own experiences.

Fuck I sound old.

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5 Responses to Calling the Shots

  1. Michael G says:

    About a year and a half ago, I went to see a film at the cinema with my boyfriend at the time, who was American. When the ads came on before the film, there was a drink driving ad that hardly made me blink but had such an unexpected effect on J—, who recoiled in shock, covering his face, and may even have let out some squeal-like sound expressing his shock and disgust.

    In the ad, a man stands at a wall in front of his girlfriend who’s sitting on it. They might be kissing or something. Then a car driven by someone who had drank too much swerves off the road and crashes into the man, crushing him against the wall and crushing the girls’ legs. It sounds pretty graphic. Probably because it was.

    There has been such a drive over the past five or more years to reduce road deaths in Ireland, so there have been numerous graphic ad campaigns and the legally allowed levels of alcohol in the blood when driving has come down dramatically. And it’s worked. Road deaths are at their lowest in years. An instance of the advertising world using its powers for good (even if it is graphic)!

    (I understand the feeling of ‘using my powers for evil’ so well. Before Christmas, I worked in SEO, writing content to improve sites’ rankings on Google. It felt so so morally dubious…)

    • Michael G says:

      I meant to add that I don’t actually know where you’re from, but don’t necessarily think that it is America. I know only too well from living in France that it’s really annoying when people assume you’re from a country you’re not from. (Nobody ever assumes you’re from Ireland unless you’re a leprechaun and even then foreigners get so into St. Patrick’s Day these days that you can’t even tell then!) I only used J—‘s Americanness because, well, that was where he was from and their advertisements don’t seem to be as full-on as ours.

  2. jemthegreat says:

    New Zealand, actually 🙂 we’re pretty high up there in the binge drinking stats. You’re right – sometimes in the industry you do get opportunities to encourage positive behavior and raise awareness of important stuff. It’s not all trying to sell irrelevant crap to people that don’t need it (just mostly!) Ha, I’ve had to do some SEO jobs in my time too (“what do you MEAN, it doesn’t matter how badly the content reads as long as it gets those four words in it somewhere?”) I think all jobs have moral dilemmas of some type or other. I wound up halfway through a journo degree before realising I’d have real problems with what I’d be asked to do day-to-day, then switched to advertising seeing it as a slightly lesser evil (and not wanting to waste all my study time and university fees!).

  3. Amanda Leek says:

    “Like all good marketing fibs, the story we’re told about alcohol works so well precisely because it contains a truth at its core. Binge drinking can be fun. It’s spontaneous and exciting, it chucks a spanner in the works of otherwise predictable social gatherings and mixes everything up.”
    – Yes! It isn’t entirely a fib, and it explains the rush of excitement when someone proposes a trip to the pub, or an extra tequila, or going to another place where it’s inevitable you will drink more, when you’re having a good time. As if it can *only* get better!

    Interesting take. Because in real life drink isn’t entirely evil, and in ad land I do think drinking is portrayed as evil.

    Coincidentally – NEW ZEALAND! 😀 I lived there for a while! It’s not the drinking, it’s how we’re drinking – your post could help their campaign out!!

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