12 January 2010

Bottle of source

This week I finally received an answer to a question I posed to Basildon Council back in October, after a few gentle reminders, ending with an email to the Leader of the Council. It was a little whimsical, so I can understand their reluctance to answer, as it related to something I overheard being broadcast in their office reception while I was awaiting an appointment. A large video display was showing a series of public information films to entertain the great unwashed of Basildon about things like healthy living, council services etc, including an entertaining little movie about the dangers of binge drinking. It included the following memorable line:

Binge drinking can lead to: Alcohol Poisoning, High Blood Pressure, Liver Cancer and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

To quote Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others, which I thought a little disingenuous - so I called them on it. If I spend the rest of my days in a pub, boozing my life away (and the opportunity would be tempting sometimes), I may well die prematurely of high blood pressure and liver cancer, and suffer several bouts of alcohol poisoning. But unless they change the recipe for beer, I will not catch an STD, no matter how much I drink. It is like saying binge drinking may lead me to die in a car crash, because of the risks associated with drink-driving.

Basildon Council said they were highlighting a correlation and explained their motivation:

"From a communications point of view, utilising the impact alcohol can have on contracting sexually transmitted diseases is an impactive way of portraying the message to young people"

Got that? Untying the syntax of that sentence, I think they mean telling teenagers not to drink because it will rot their genitals is more effective than warning against a long-term risk, such as liver cancer. A valid point - teenagers think they will live forever, and can't see beyond the end of the next dole cheque, never mind 30 years hence.

However, the film did not seem to be aimed at young people, certainly not judging by its stars and its audience in that office (including me). It featured the type of "forgotten binge drinker" the government is keen that we unforget: middle aged delinquents like me who neck bottles of wine at the weekend. People who would no more attempt some casual sex after a couple of snifters than would try to drive a car, operate heavy machinery or host a Radio 2 show. If you start to draw in surrogate outcomes for binge drinking into what purports to be an information film, how far do you wander into areas where self-control plays a part?

How about if we said binge drinking leads to divorce, domestic violence, public nakedness and drowning? Hell, go for the jugular: binge drinking will kill you. If you strain the extrapolation and, most importantly, remove the agent from the action, you strain the credibility of your argument. To me there is a simple rule of thumb: if you want to be trusted more, claim less. It's actually an age-old sales technique - if people think they are getting more than they were promised, they trust you more and are more likely to purchase from you again. Now, where's that bottle of gin?...

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