A current anti-excessive drinking campaign shares a strange quality with the alcohol adverts to which one would expect it to be opposed. The Drink Aware poster displays three young men on a night out, with the caption underneath ‘Where will your night end up?’ A label is attached to each ‘lad’ in the photo. Above the first it says ‘Bar24,’ above the second ‘Gav’s place,’ and above the third, ‘intensive care.’ The message is clear enough; drink responsibly and you will have a great night clubbing or hanging out with mates, or drink excessively and risk ending up in hospital.
But something more is shown here about the way in which we see drinking in our culture. The poster shares a dimension with alcohol adverts themselves in that it connects alcohol with a kind of infinite possibility, a kind of ‘anything could happen’ attitude; you drink, and who knows where your night will go. Many adverts work in this way, but alcohol marketing specifically preys upon this infinite possibility, its link to escapism, an entry point into another world of experience, the unknown. Take for example the latest Bulmers campaign, tagline, ‘we don’t know where your night will end up, but it will begin with a Bulmers.’
Yet, what are are dealing with here is not really appeal of the infinite unknown at all, but rather the writing and mapping of the infinite by ideology. What this Drink Aware campaign shows us is that when we talk about possibility in this way we are really not dealing with the unknown at all, but with the role that the unknown plays within the limits of our knowledge.
In the Drink Aware poster the possible destinations are pre-determined, and we could easily go down the route of seeing just how much they signify: bar24 implying all night partying in a place at least newer than the 24 hour drinking laws, Gav’s place implying spending the night with mates to whom you are close enough to have a nickname for. And this pre-determination of the unknown is a feature of alcohol adverts as well; a glass of Russian Standard Vodka will lead you to very mysterious and unfamiliar territory indeed, but that unknown will predictably be a Moscow nightclub filled with attractive women and talented dancers.
The point here is not that whatever we may desire, we are limited to a pre-determined list of possibilities. On the contrary, the point is that our desires are themselves channelled and determined by our culture. And alcohol adverts are a point at which this becomes apparent. In their attempt to appeal to the ‘unknown’ and the ‘anything can happen’ attitude, they show us how our conceptions of the unknown are actually always finite rather than infinite, they are always culturally determined in often very specific terms. Ultimately what we see here is that whilst we like to think that our desire is for change, innovation, the new and the unknown, what we really mean by these terms is a fantasy very much known and constructed by our commodity culture. What this means is that we cannot see desire as having a natural drive towards some kind of change-as-such, since we have to see that change itself as culturally constructed.