Tuesday, January 19, 2016

the booze tube

Maybe I should just chalk it up to the fact that I'm becoming a grumpy old lady, but I'm starting to miss the TV shows from my youth. It's not just that I'm getting a big dose of midlife nostalgia (although I'm sure it's partly to blame) but I feel so overwhelmed watching so many of these new TV shows that have such an alcohol-centric focus that booze is practically another character in the series.

I suppose I should digress here and clarify that I am not sober. I do not have a problem with drugs or alcohol, so seeing people on TV drinking or being drunk does not "trigger" me in any way. And yet it bothers me. It bothers me a LOT.

I'm sure someone has done better research on this topic than I ever could, but the way I see it the blame goes back to advertising standards. In the United States there are very strict laws governing the way that alcohol (and firearms and tobacco, which are all lumped together under "adult activities") are marketed and advertised. Up until the 1990s, cartoon characters and other imagery was used that was clearly intended to catch the attention of younger audiences. This isn't a dubious claim and it wasn't a mistake. They intentionally started marketing their products to children and adolescents, knowing that they would be the future consumers of their products - which was a base of users that they needed to build after their current crop of consumers aged out of the products or died (some from medical complications caused by the products themselves). A fifty year old man drinking beer didn't care a lick about Spuds McKenzie but the kids in my elementary school sure thought he was cool. After decades of complaints, the temperance movement finally caught up to the governing bodies of advertisements and those ads, along with most others, were removed from sight. Well, at least from the mainstream. Sure, there are still enough beer ads out there to fill the Grand Canyon but they're not as ubiquitous as they used to be. On television, you'll rarely see an alcohol commercial at all (unless the network and program meet certain criteria to be allowed to air such an advertisement) and those that make it through the filter generally are trying to sell you on the excellent qualities of the product (quality hops, high-end distilleries, etc.) instead of the party-time, rock-n-roll lifestyle that they used to portray (Spuds McKenzie, etc.).

But booze wasn't going away, so if the brands couldn't advertise in commercial spots, where could they go? They went into the programs themselves. True, many programs use prop products (you'll see a box that looks like Cheerios but is called Cereal-o's or something like that) which also includes beer like Heisler but the big brands find a way in (by buying their way in; product placement is lucrative for any production company which is why your favorite characters sometimes go to Subway or incessantly talk about Quiznos). How many scenes in TV/movies are set in a bar? Do you see neon signs in the background for name brand beers? How many characters are chugging a distinguishable bottle or order a "jack and Coke"?

And beyond the product placement, booze culture found it's way into the "mainstream" television program. Sure, look back to the programs of the 1950's and TV parents often had a cocktail before dinner, but it wasn't made into a big deal. It was a thing people did. Mom baked cakes, kids rode bikes, dad had a Manhattan, no big whoop because that wasn't the story of the episode. But today's TV environment is totally different. Characters aren't just out at a bar, they're getting drunk at a bar. They set out with the intention to get drunk. Their friends say "oh, you've had a terrible day - what you need is a drink!" Several popular TV shows have a repeating theme of binge drinking games which have now been adapted for at-home use by the viewers.

What bothers me about all of this is that most people don't stop and think it through. I come from a background in Marketing and Advertising so maybe I see things or think of angles that others don't, especially young people who are impressionable. I'd much rather my nephew watch The Simpsons where Homer's alcohol problem is played as a problem. He goes to a seedy bar full of unhappy people who visibly - and literally, often by saying the words out loud - warn against becoming like them. When Homer stops drinking, his life improves and his family is more content. That's totally unlike most of the shows out there that appeal to teens, who want to emulate "cool" people like those shown on network TV every night of the week. I know it's no longer a new show, but a show like How I Met Your Mother is in syndication like crazy - and it's a funny show - but it's another example of how the main characters spend their time almost exclusively in a bar and drink to deal with their emotions.

So when I watch these types of shows, I feel slightly irritated -- why can't they ever have a bagel or coffee instead? Why do friends have to get drunk so constantly? -- and I can't imagine how difficult it must be for someone with a substance abuse problem. It must like having a stomach ache, because I can tell you from experience that whenever I feel nauseated every commercial is for greasy pizza. It bothers me that alcohol is just another character in every show these days and that a lot of that is funded by the alcohol companies themselves - they provide sponsorship money, props, and 'samples' for the networks in exchange for writers creating a scene where it's applicable. So here the characters go back to the bar. Again. But it makes me sad for the younger generation. Will they be able to see through the bullshit and not try and emulate what they see on TV? Will they get to college and think "hey, my friends and I can hang out together at this bubble tea place" instead of a bar?

1 comment:

Jules said...

I was 12 years old the firsxt time I saw Stefano Dimera pour some amber liquid "on the rocks" in a ritualistic manner and I was sold. I'm not saying that Days of Our Lives mad me an alcoholic, but there's some serious subtext going on there.

Also, it's nice to have you back


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