Message in a bottle

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)

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