Barry Halpin / Musings & Observations
Ads paint 'drinking buddies' in different light
Published 5:30 pm, Wednesday, March 23, 2011
I don't think I would get much of an argument from anyone regarding the power of both advertising and alcohol. Combine the two in beer ads on television, show very attractive, sexy people having fun or cute lizards and frogs saying funny things, and you have advertising campaigns that have proven over the years to be incredibly successful.
Whether it's the Swedish Bikini Team parachuting from the sky bringing six packs of Old Milwaukee Beer with them, the ultimate male fantasy come true; a group of friends saying "Waz Up?" over and over again; or a couple of lizards making us laugh as they talk about partying, drinking is portrayed as "cool," fun and the popular thing to do. These are powerful, hard-to-resist images for many young people, for whom image and cool are extremely important.
The whole truth is often left for another day, sometimes with tragic consequences. People getting sick all over themselves, drunk driving accidents and date rape -- all possible negative consequences from drinking -- run counter to the image advertisers want to portray. In addition, alcohol is usually involved in the three leading causes of death among young people: accidents; suicide; and homicide.
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The teen psyche, being one of invincibility, fuels a lot of risk-taking behavior and makes it harder for them to see the negative consequences of drinking as something real. The "real" for them is more apt to be the image of a non-stop party. You would have to be nuts not to want to hang out with these people; they're the life of the party, your ideal "drinking buddies."
Teens' perception of themselves as invincible often clashes with their parents efforts to talk to them about risky behaviors. It's a constant struggle, a balancing act between parent and child, with the main goal of the parent often being to allay fears they might have about where, with whom and what their child will be doing that evening.
On the morning of Feb. 16, a group of Stamford High School students got together for a breakfast party that included vodka, pot and the fortified malt liquors, Four Loko and Joose, in Stamford High's Boyle Stadium.
As one of the girls lay unconscious suffering from alcohol poisoning at their feet, her drinking buddies shot a video of the drinking and pot smoking scene. They made no effort to help her or call 911. Stamford Police Sgt. Joseph Kennedy of the youth bureau said that as the camera panned the group with the girl in the frame, no one appeared the least bit concerned with how she was doing. It's unimaginable, but they were horsing around and mugging for the camera.
It turns out it was the video that tipped school officials to the girl's whereabouts; it was taken from the cell phone of a male student who appeared drunk when stopped in the school halls.
"If we had not gotten to her, it could have been fatal," said Stamford High School Principal Donna Valentine.
The callous indifference shown by her so-called friends and drinking buddies was eerily reminiscent of what happened almost nine years ago, when every parent's worst nightmare came true for the Viscome family of Harrison, N.Y.
On April 23, 2002, school was let out early because of a power failure and a group of students got together for an afternoon beer bash at the house of a student whose parents were out of town.
Rob Viscome and another student exchanged words, with the dispute supposedly starting small and then escalating as more alcohol was consumed. A punch was thrown, Rob was knocked unconscious by the blow and he hit his head on the pavement when he fell.
That was when the unthinkable happened. No one called 911; in fact it was reported that some teens were saying don't call 911, presumably because they were afraid of getting in trouble for having a party. Normal adolescent anxiety? I fear not; more like anxiety heightened by alcohol to the point where rational thinking was compromised.
It was also been reported that the teens stood around, cleaned up the beer cans and made up a story while Viscome was lying on the ground. The police chief said he might have laid on the concrete patio for up to 20 minutes. When they finally decided to take him to the hospital, they picked him up, then dropped him on his head.
I guess they hadn't seen any beer ads recently, because if they had they would have understood that drinking buddies do not behave that way -- at least in television ads. They laugh, they high five and they don't neglect a buddy in need. Then again, unfortunately this wasn't television; this was real life.
Viscome died a week later, never awakening from a coma. If he had any real buddies there that day, they would have called 911 immediately and his life might have been saved. They would have done the right thing because that is what real buddies do. They watch out for and take care of each other -- no matter what.
In this type of a situation, drinking buddies is an oxymoron. Alcohol changes the equation. Self-interest takes center stage and humanity becomes nonexistent. Buddies are nowhere to be found.
I would have hoped that the young people involved would have learned a lesson from what happened -- the proverbial wake up call. Sadly enough, five months later, another drinking party took place in Harrison and a young man ended up putting his hand through a plate glass window after becoming very angry during an argument about that day's football game.
Most of life's difficult lessons are usually learned from personal experience, but seemingly in this instance the lesson fell on deaf ears.
The much easier lesson to learn is the one presented on television in beer ads -- that no matter how much fun you think you are having, alcohol will enhance that pleasure even more. Television is a very powerful medium and as Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message."
It is extremely important for parents to communicate with their children on these issues at a relatively early age to help them understand the powerful nature of advertising in shaping people's perceptions of reality, as well as the power of alcohol to seriously compromise decision making.
Our children are the future and it is extremely important to provide them with the tools they need to take control of their lives, make positive choices, understand the risks involved in underage drinking and understand that in life there are no make-up exams.
Pay attention to what Viscome's sister, Valerie, said after the loss of her brother, "Look around and think about who you are with, and think about, would these people help me if I was hurt? Would they call 911, or would they try and cover themselves first?"
I think we all know what a real buddy would do.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.