Message in a bottle

// 27 May 2008

click to embiggen The other morning, I got off the Tube near where I work, as usual, walked round the corner from the platform and just stopped in my tracks in front of this poster (click thumbnail to embiggen). The caption reads: "If you drink like a man you might end up looking like one" but all I saw was "Drink too much and you’ll develop a gender identity problem".

And that’s just one subtext; I suppose it was fairly predictable that I would first of all pick up on the gender identity aspect. Although I don’t think that is the primary focus of the poster, it’s no less insensitive for that. It’s not acceptable to use any means to get your message across; the question of whether or not it may cause offence, to your target demographic or anyone else, should have been considered in more depth.

The poster is part of a publicity campaign by a public organisation whose website seems to have good intentions, the Drug and Alcohol Service for London, and I’m sure that they don’t believe that people with gender identity issues are a legitimate subject for a campaign about heavy alcohol use. Let’s face it, if you’re taking prescribed medications, such as HRT, then you shouldn’t be taking any alcohol, let alone drinking to excess on a regular and frequent basis.

So what is this poster about, then? My guess is that the advert is attempting to target the so-called ‘binge drinkers’ and is intended as a reminder of the long-term physical changes that heavy alcohol consumption can cause. But, rightly or wrongly, the media would have us believe that binge drinkers are predominantly young women; not middle-aged. This advertising campaign – no matter how well-intentioned – fails because it raises more questions than it answers by simplistically asserting that alcohol misuse will, of and by itself, cause aesthetically displeasing changes in a woman’s appearance. But this is problematic as the image relies on heavily stereotyped and very narrow standards of beauty, not to mention gendered norms of behaviour.

There is a degree of finger-wagging going on with this campaign which could easily be interpreted more as nagging than trying to be helpful. And the subject of alcohol misuse by women might have been more clearly understood if the poster had used ‘before’ and ‘after’ images. But a single image of what appears to be a badly made-up middle-aged woman above a caption about "drinking like a man" sends out a very different and specific message to someone like me who is daily grappling with her own identity issues, and for whom travel on public transport is already a necessary if unsettling evil without being unexpectedly confronted with a poster like this one.

(Cross-posted at bird of paradox)

Comments From You

Feminist Avatar // Posted 27 May 2008 at 10:29 am

And of course, if drinking too much makes you look like a man, the reverse must also be true. Drink less and you will be more feminine. Hmm… This sounds vaguely familiar.

Mrs. Boggins // Posted 27 May 2008 at 10:31 am

I saw this too and was horrified. What on earth are they trying to say? Whichever agency came up with it should be taken out and shot.

Emma // Posted 27 May 2008 at 11:32 am

Not see that exact one before but some like it. You make a lot of valid points I hadn’t thought of before, thank you. My immediate annoyance was the appealy to beauty. Because, you know, all young women care about is how they look so you need a shock campain telling women they won’t be attractive if they drink to get women to stop drinking, becasue all they care about is their looks.

jenniferdrew // Posted 27 May 2008 at 12:53 pm

This poster is misogynstic. So it is okay then for men to drink themselves insensible because they are ‘male’ but not women.

Once again women are being blamed for the so-called ‘binge drink culture.’ This is despite statistics consistently show men drink far more than women. So why aren’t men being targetted? Misogyny being ‘invisibilised’ again anyone?

Betsy // Posted 27 May 2008 at 12:56 pm

In York, York city council have a similar campaign but without the gender issue,

“Too much beer leads to beer bellies”

(or something)

I don’t know if it’ll be bored or less effect, if at all.

Sarah // Posted 27 May 2008 at 1:51 pm

I’ve seen these posters around London, and am still puzzled by what the point of the gender issue is. I get that they are trying to target appearance-conscious women by suggesting that drinking too much will have a bad effect on your appearance (possibly true), but how on earth does drinking make you ‘look like a man’, whatever that means? Does it just mean looking ugly? But some men look quite nice! I’m also not quite sure what ‘drinking like a man’ means.

Actually, it seems to me to be just playing on the idea that being unable to properly conform to your ‘correct’ gender is the worst thing ever – you already know about liver disease and cancer and alcoholism or having an accident or being assaulted when drunk – but did you know the really bad thing that might happen if you keep drinking – you might end up LOOKING LIKE THE WRONG GENDER OMG!!

I agree that alcohol misuse is a real problem in society (though not just for women!) but this is is a lazy and illogical way to address it, and I can see how it could be offensive to many people.

Polly // Posted 27 May 2008 at 2:11 pm

I’ve complained about it to the advertising standards agency, TFL and I wrote to DASL to boot.

Does the text underneath substantiate anything about how women would look like men? Do they mean rough skin and wrinkles? I thought beer actually increased oestrogen, which is why it helps men get moobs?

The same charity runs special programmes with young gay and lesbian people, so they really should know better.

Kuja // Posted 27 May 2008 at 3:32 pm

Doesn’t this just reinforce the idea that drinking is manly? It’s supposed to target young female binge drinkers but seems to condone male binge drinkers at the same time. Stupid plan, advertisers, stupid plan!

The message is ridiculous, it makes it sound like all men drink a lot and it’s OK, but if women do it, they’ll suffer consequences. And as though the only way to stop females from doing something bad for their health is to say “and look what it does to your appearance”. I think most women, myself included, would pay more attention to an advert which says “look what it does to your liver”!

Anne Onne // Posted 27 May 2008 at 5:03 pm

It’s a really insensitive, thoughtless advertising campaign, and it shouldn’t have been run. It looks like they spent about 5 minutes thinking it up, and it’s a pretty useless message, that can’t do any good in itself. There are very real dangers in excessive drinking, but this isn’t one of them, and it trivialises the severity of drink-related conditions whilst demeaning people whose gender presentation is not neatly enough in one category.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 27 May 2008 at 5:29 pm

I agree that this is a *terrible* and irresponsible advertising campaign! What is “looking like a man” supposed to mean anyway? The photo implies “looking like man” means having really badly applied make-up, which isn’t what I’d immediately associate with “being a man”. It’s ridiculous and stupid and sexist.

Kuja, the point about this poster making it seem like drinking heavily is “manly” (and therefore ok for men) is a VERY good one. Perhaps complaining to the Drug and Alcohol Service directly might help. I have very little faith in the ASA these days.

secretrebel // Posted 27 May 2008 at 6:38 pm

I think the photo is of a man and to make it look like a “woman who looks like a man” the advertisers have added the badly applied makeup. The advert carries a pernicious series of message that I’m still attempting to unpick. In addition to what’s been said above about alcohol being manly I noticed these connotations:

woman = makeup wearers

makeup on men = ugly

badly applied makeup = ugly

men = not make up wearers

a birch tree // Posted 27 May 2008 at 10:40 pm

I thought the woman in the poster looked like she had just been beaten up; the red blotches and swelling on the right side of her face indicative of violence.

Which makes this ad so much more horrifying: Drink, and you deserve domestic violence.

Alex B // Posted 28 May 2008 at 12:27 am

The poster is very ill-judged for the reasons people have discussed. But –

There is one thing you might be missing – medically speaking women should drink less than men to stay healthy. In this sense a woman drinking “like a man” would seem a less misogynistic phrasing. Though clearly this is a fairly convoluted line of thinking, even if it is a valid interpretation.

Someone will need to explain to me why it condones men drinking to excess…The tone of it could just as well be ‘all men are drunks’ – which is offensive and hardly a condonation.

And it seems a petty criticism to say that the ad does not target male drinking. Should we not have any ads aimed at women because men are a bigger problem?

Mephit // Posted 28 May 2008 at 12:27 pm

To Alex B: I think the social stereotype is that “real men” drink to excess.

I’m certainly aware of a culture in which a “real man” is supposed to be able to down a pint (or yard of ale even). Men who drink halves or supposedly gendered drinks (such as some alcopops) can be derided by their peers.

In this climate, therefore, to drink to excess is to drink “like a man” and is good/normal (for men). This campaign condones that attitude by its tacit acceptance of it.

Char // Posted 28 May 2008 at 3:37 pm

I’ve just been writing about how women in the 1920s were condemned for unsexing themselves by using cocaine.

Nearly 100 years later and nothing’s changed.

Kuja // Posted 28 May 2008 at 6:32 pm

Alex B: There should be ads aimed at both, but why do we need one that targets men and one that targets women? As far as I’ve seen, anti-smoking ads are gender-neutral. Show us rotted lungs, who cares whether they’re female or male, it’s causing cancer and that’s enough.

It does make it sound like all men drink excessively, which is why it’s bad – this isn’t “Oh, poor women, we’re told to drink less than men” but more about the way the advertisers have stereotyped us into two groups; men CAN and DO drink lots, but women CAN’T and MIGHT be considering it. I think we know the problem isn’t so cut-and-dry.

Anna // Posted 28 May 2008 at 6:53 pm

Some anti-smoking ads are for women and focus on their looks – I recall one in which a lady smoker was lighting up in front of a mirror and went all wrinkly and yellow.

Kathy // Posted 28 May 2008 at 9:03 pm

“Some anti-smoking ads are for women and focus on their looks – I recall one in which a lady smoker was lighting up in front of a mirror and went all wrinkly and yellow”

I haven’t seen this one, I’m afraid, but I do remember the one with a stick-figure-man’s penis crumbling and falling off like ash from a cigarette.

Now, translation of the anti-drinking poster in question as I understand it:

“Young women, you know how you often feel under pressure to behave like “one of the lads”, because if you don’t conform to expectations, you will be ridiculed for being “uptight”? Well, the physical effects of drinking like that stereotypical idea of a “real man” will move you further away from the “ideal of beauty” which you have been told* you should aim for. So please consider which kind of conforming to stereotypes is more important to you”.

(*Very persuasively. With photoshopped pictures and everything.)

This, however, is a bit too long to put on an ad poster, so I can see why one would want to turn it into a simple advertising slogan.

Kuja // Posted 28 May 2008 at 9:30 pm

Oh. Sorry, I guess I was wrong about the smoking ads. I haven’t seen those ones. I was thinking of a particular one about parents’ passive smoke affecting children, or the one with that smoke monster hovering around the living room, or the NHS one which showed loads of people standing on skyscrapers (sounds weird, but it did have a point).

Haha, I shouldn’t really have been so hopeful as to expect any type of advertising to be gender-neutral!

Tristian // Posted 29 May 2008 at 8:15 am

There is, unfortunately, the point that a women’s level of ‘binge drinking’ is lower than a man’s. However this difference is only one or two standard drinks – no where near enough to justify this kind of advertising approach.

An interesting way of challenging the perception of heavy drinking as a man’s thing might be to advertise the fact that one side effect of prolonged alcohol abuse in men is testicular atrophy.

Steph Jones // Posted 29 May 2008 at 9:59 am

I saw this at the weekend too… it seems that they are rather falling into some very lazy, antiquated stereotypes and expectations of gender.

A Squared // Posted 3 June 2008 at 9:54 pm

Do you think they did it on purpose? I mean – do you think they advertised it because they wanted to upset someone? They tried to help women who drink too much and wouldn’t stop drinking because of health concerns but would do so because they may look ugly if they drink too much.

If that helps just a few people to sort out their lives don’t you think it was worth it?

NHS posters with people hooked to cigarettes had to be removed because they scared people. That was the point!

I think that only people who do nothing don’t make mistakes.

Helen G // Posted 3 June 2008 at 10:15 pm

A Squared: Problem is that it’s not a scary image – also the whole message sent out is very confused, unclear. If you were a heavy or binge drinker, would you stop drinking because of this poster?

I was a smoker for (far too) many years, and must have seen dozens of quit smoking campaigns – but the thing that finally made me stop was having my own personal health scare, nothing to do with any poster. And then I stopped – *clicks fingers* – like that, literally overnight. I had to want to quit, before I could do it – and it took that health scare to make me want to. But everyone’s different, I guess, and what worked for me may not necessarily work for someone else.

It’s difficult to know what would work, to be honest – but I certainly don’t think finger-wagging and haranguing people is helpful.

Then there’s the issue of targeting only women with this poster…

And the mythical standards of beauty…

And the different physical/mental effects of long term drinking…

And and and…

I just think the whole campaign has been very badly thought out and implemented.

A Squared // Posted 4 June 2008 at 12:12 am

Take a look at:

You will see why they targeted women. Simply because the amount of binge drinking women has increased dramatically and they addressed the problem. There were many campaigns informing people about health risks. Looks like some people do not get the message and think that other things are more important than health.

There could be a campaign aimed at men informing them that they may become impotents if they drink too much too often.

to Kuja:

“I think most women, myself included, would pay more attention to an advert which says “look what it does to your liver”!”

There’s plenty of information about health problems involved with drinking but still there are some women who do not care about their health. So let’s say that some women reduce their drinking because of health risks, some will reduce because it may cause them to look bad. At the end we have more women who reduced their drinking levels and that is important in my opinion.

Same thing with men – some may stop drinking after seeing liver of a drinker and some may stop after their realise that they may not be up to task at night with their partner.

The numbers simply add up.

I always try to look at the bigger picture to get better view. You may find the other’s party opinion by simply calling them.

Anyway I wish everyone a peaceful night and good day tomorrow.

Miss W // Posted 4 June 2008 at 4:23 pm

I am shocked that you all seem to be missing the point. This is clearly an advertising campaign targetting the heavy drinking population. It is both the same for women as for men that drinking creates an inbalance in hormones. I understand that to some this may be an offensive advertisment, however, please, as someone who is effected by alcohol daily, lets not allow the chance of some people being helped slip by.

Holly Combe // Posted 4 June 2008 at 4:52 pm

I appreciate why you might take the view that anything that works is surely a good thing but am also sure Helen made her criticisms fully aware of that potential point. It’s just that she still found the poster offensive.

You say “it is the same for women as for men that drinking creates an imbalance in hormones” but it still remains that the campaign is specifically targeted at women who the campaigners presumably assume could be persuaded to stop drinking out of a fear of looking like a man. Not only is this offensive for the reasons that Helen and others have pointed out, but I would also suggest it won’t necessarily help a woman who really does have a drink problem to stop. Isn’t it possible that it might just make her feel bad and, if she doesn’t like the way she looks anyway and also happens to have low self esteem, to think “too late for my looks now so I may as well carry on”? Personally, I think it’s this campaign that misses the point: the point that alcohol abuse damages your health. Or do we actually think that a woman’s looks are more important than her health?

Meanwhile, men aren’t helped by the campaign at all… While we’re on the subject, does anyone know what the posters for men say? *goes off to have a look*

Sarah - Uplift // Posted 5 June 2008 at 3:17 pm

Thought people might be interested to know that Marie Claire magazine have a feature this month entitled ‘The truth about alcohol and you’ Where they say “We asked 3 top ad agencies…to create campaigns to make women more drink aware”, and this ‘Drinking like a man’ campaign was one of the outcomes. It is by TBWA, and a spokesperson for the agency says;

“We’ve focused on an area that, for many women, is at the front of their minds. The damage that alcohol can cause to your looks is a powerful truth that will motivate many women to reappraise their drinking habits. The ad uses an image of a woman who has been damaged by alcohol consumption. Many women probably feel more immediately scared of the apparent effects – hair-loss, obesity, wrinkles and skin damage – than the inner damage. We would support this with a website that would allow women to upload a photo of their face and see it altered to represent what 20 years of drinking would do to their appearance.”

I wondered what people think about the spokeperson’s words, and also the other two campaigns shown in the magazine (if people have seen them).

Also, this ‘drink like a man’ campaign was talked over on today’s Loose Women. The image was met with laughter, rather than shock, and the final outcome of the discussion was basically ‘Stop telling me I can’t have fun!’

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