Phil Mellows yesterday pointed out one of the latest Portman Group judgements, which had to decide whether the names and labels of various beers were in breach of the code. The names were: Cat Piss; Dog Piss, Bullshit; Dandelion & Birdshit; Big Cock; Grumpy Git; Arse Liquor; Lazy Sod; Puke; Shitfaced; Yellow Snow; and Knobhead.
I could just leave you with the link to the judgement (which also shows the labels), and allow you to giggle – or snort, as Phil did.
However, one bit of wording in the judgement caught my eye, given the one-trick-pony nature of my academic work at the moment.
“The Panel was concerned, however, that frequent references to scatological humour, defecation, urination, genitalia, vomiting and other bodily functions could prove particularly attractive to under-18s.”
If you added violence to this, it’s basically a description of the carnivalesque, which characterises Rabelais’ work, which is then drawn on by Bakhtin, and in turn drawn on by people like me (or this research team) to describe current town centre drinking. (Flippant, but I don’t see young people eagerly reading Rabelais…)
I don’t want this post to turn into a detailed discussion of the codes used by the Portman Group and Advertising Standards Agency in relation to alcohol, but after reading this I started to flick through other recent judgements.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a common feature of these is the feeling that products are appealing to children. This isn’t just in a simple way, such that bright colours or fruit flavours are condemned. A school has been condemned for brewing a beer to commemorate its 100th anniversary – since there was then an unavoidable association between alcohol and the education of children. Most bizarrely, the judgement stated: “while acknowledging that the school had taken steps to conceal the product from the pupils during school hours, it could not control children seeing the product if it was taken home by a parent.”
To me, this highlights the inconsistency of the Portman Group approach. Public Health advocates complain that advertising and licensing ‘normalise’ alcohol consumption, and worry about alcohol being available in locations they feel it’s unusual and unnecessary, like cinemas. It’s exactly this sort of worry that lies behind the condemnation of associating a school with beer – and yet the Portman Group represents manufacturers who do precisely this, and would argue that normalising isn’t a problem – alcohol is perfectly normal, but should be drunk ‘responsibly’; it’s only the errant individuals that need to be targeted.*
Obviously this isn’t an original or particularly interesting thought. The strange role of the Portman Group is acknowledged by both (self-defined) ‘sides’ of the alcohol policy debate. I just found the condemnation of a celebratory beer very strange – particularly when it’s an industry-related body doing the condemning.
The more general theme of complaints to the Portman Group – as in the case of ‘Cat Piss’ beer – is that the drinks themselves would be appealing to children. However, this is a line that is increasingly hard to draw, when UK drinking culture is carnivalesque (with the world turned upside down you can leave responsible adulthood behind) and where ‘kidult’ themes are common.
The suggestion is made in one complaint that a WKD ‘cauldron’ is irresponsible because:
“Halloween is widely recognised as a children focused evening, in particular with dressing up and trick or treating. The presentation of this product alongside the promotional posters, table talkers and mobiles would resonate with U18’s and make the product attractive towards them.”
But this isn’t simply about the evil alcohol industry appealing to kids.
This distinction is hard to draw. Is childhood the first thing young adults think of in terms of Halloween? Possibly not; it’s probably now dressing up and parties. There it is again – the kidult theme.
As we are in a culture where lots of the things adults are attracted to are child-like, the assumption behind this is that we need to encourage a culture that is sensible, staid and certainly sober. I’m not sure I want to live in that world. There are all sorts of problems with kidult themes – not least the way it potentially works both ways, with children wanting to be adults as well as adults wanting to be children – but to see it as a problem when alcohol simply reflects the society we already live in seems like backwards logic to me.
It’s noticeable that the Portman Group rejected the claim that the WKD cauldron was appealing to children (though it noted that alcohol content of any drinks in it would be unclear) while the school anniversary beer was condemned. I’m not sure which way I’d have preferred the decision to go. Maybe the answer is that neither should be condemned, and alcohol shouldn’t be seen as the carrier of all moral value. Just something to think about.
*To be fair, the report linked to here isn’t an industry report, but it’s a good expression of the philosophy behind the approach that opposes population-wide interventions (like minimum unit pricing) in favour of targeted measures.