Purpose - Social marketing initiatives designed to address the UK’s culture of unhealthy levels of drinking among young adults have achieved inconclusive results to date. The paper investigates the gap between young people’s perceptions of alcohol consumption and those of government agencies who seek to influence their behaviour set within a contextualist framework.
Design/methodology/approach - We present empirical evidence from a major study which suggests that the emphasis of recent campaigns on individual responsibility may be unlikely to resonate with young drinkers. The research included a meaning-based and visual rhetoric analysis of 261 ads shown on TV, in magazines, billboards and the internet between 2005 and 2006. This was followed by 16 informal group discussions with 89 young adults in 3 locations.
Findings - The research identified the importance of the social context of young people’s drinking. The research reveals how a moral position has been culturally constructed around positioning heavy drinking as an individual issue with less regard to other stakeholders and how the marketing agents function in this environment. Calls to individual responsibility in drinking are unlikely to succeed in the current marketing environment.
Research limitations/implications - The qualitative research was limited to three geographical locations with young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
Practical implications - We explore implications for social marketing theory and for UK alcohol policy. In particular, we suggest that the social norms surrounding young people’s drinking need to be acknowledged and built into ‘sensible’ social marketing campaigns. We suggest that shame, fear and guilt appeals should be replaced with more constructive methods of ensuring young people’s safety when they drink.
Originality/value - From the theoretical perspective of contextualism, the paper brings together empirical research with young adults and a critical analysis of recent social marketing campaigns within the commercial context of a ‘culture of intoxication’. It provides both a critique of social marketing in a neo-liberal context and recognition of issues involved in excessive alcohol consumption.