Save us all from ‘alcohol awareness’

Save Dave, the latest government anti-drinking campaign, imagines the British everyman as a drunk simpleton.

Anna Travis

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Topics Politics

I thought I had become immune to the manipulative melodrama and schlock horror of the British authorities’ public health campaigns. I had got used to gaping open-mouthed in terror at government TV commercials. It is not the endless warnings about the perils of demon drink or the lethal dangers of casual sex that’s shocking, but rather the caricature of everyday depravity that we are increasingly invited to consider to be normal.

So when a garish flyer dropped out of The Leader, my local rag in Brighton in the south of England, featuring what looked like health advice, it was heading straight for the bin. That was until I noted the headline: ‘SAVE DAVE – going from drink to a drunk.’

‘What’s new?’ you might think. Surely, this is just the usual hectoring hyperbole, forever problematising alcohol? What you don’t know, however, is that I’m married to a Dave and, to our neighbourhood’s mild amusement, there is also a Dave opposite us, another next door and yet another two doors away. It was of course a bizarre fluke that this mailshot had hit, so precisely, its target market (apart from the implied alcoholism of course). Here’s what the leaflet, from the National Health Service, said:

Everyone knows a ‘Dave’.

He could be a member of your family, or a friend.

He could be you.

Everybody loves him. But what he really loves is a drink. In fact he’d feel lost without one. It helps him cope with the pressures of life – so he says.

His drinking is getting out of control. He can’t see or won’t see the effect it’s having on those around him.

For his sake, we have to Save Dave.

Help Dave get his life back on track.

To save Dave call 01273 680 714 to speak to someone who can help, or speak to your GP.

I was shocked… but soon the flyer was shelved and forgotten. That is, until the following week, when The Leader fell on our doormat again and, hidden amongst the car ads and local news ephemera, a headline caught my eye: ‘I’m Dave, and I’m NOT an alcoholic.’ How refreshing, I thought, someone is finally challenging the deluge of insulting health advice and the incessant pathologising of our alcohol consumption. Sadly, on closer inspection, it transpired that the irate, eponymous Dave was doing no such radical thing. Instead, he was fuming at the snobbish use of his name to represent the ‘problem demographic’ in the Save Dave campaign: ‘It’s offensive. It assumes anyone called Dave is an alcoholic.’

It is interesting that the only vocal objection to this alcoholism outreach programme was posed in the language of offence. The obscurity of the special interest group concerned descended into farcical hoax territory later in the letter, when the writer complained: ‘Maybe you have a good heart but think about the implications for the undrunk Daves and Davids.’ So the insult is not that the campaign implies there is an alcoholic everyman lurking within all of us, but that it tarnishes a Christian name.

Of course no one wishes to be typecast as an over-35, blokey, bland, suburban alcoholic. No one wishes to be just a ‘Dave’, a lower middle-class mediocrity, swigging his pint in a world that everyone feels at liberty to sneer at. You can empathise with, for a brief moment, the livid letter writer: ‘You can call them Pebbledash People. You can picture them behind the wheel of a Sierra or Mondeo… Marginal Man and Wavering Woman.’

Dave as a class signifier has of course become increasingly blurred since David ‘just call me Dave’ Cameron took office, having squeezed every last remnant of everyman credibility from his name in an attempt to dispel his ‘toff’ image. But what spawned the monstrous average Dave of our clumsy health campaign? Brighton and Hove Primary Care Trust launched the campaign as part of their response to some of the following statistics (for the full selection see the Facts section of the campaign website):

  • Fact 1: Brighton & Hove has the highest level of male alcohol-specific hospital admissions in the south east of England
  • Fact 2: An estimated 50,000 people in Brighton & Hove drink at levels that may risk their health
  • Fact 3: About 12,500 people are considered to be at high risk. Over 7,500 of these are likely to have an alcohol dependency
  • Fact 4: The average Brighton & Hove man dies 12.6 months prematurely due to alcohol-related illness

This is a local version of the usual sketchy fodder presented as damning evidence of Binge Britain. Such alarmist bullet points are so deadeningly familiar, we become desensitised to just how insubstantial they are. So let’s look at each of these ‘facts’ in turn.

  • Fact 1: Being the biggest city in the south east (outside of London), it is not surprising that Brighton breaks the record of alcohol-specific hospital admissions. It is also the most popular tourist resort in the south east and a famous ‘party’ city. We don’t know how high ‘the highest’ level of admissions is, so in itself the statement shouldn’t be alarming; it is simply expressed in an alarming tone.
  • Fact 2: We’re not told on what this estimate is based or what exactly is meant by the claim that drinking ‘may’ put your health at risk. After all, living may be a risk to your health, too.
  • Fact 3: Aha! So it is, in fact, only 12,500 people who are classified as particularly vulnerable and only a smaller subset of this group are ‘likely’ to have an alcohol dependency.
  • Fact 4: This is an odd claim that attempts to combine two suspicious arts. It extrapolates a median man from what is a notoriously eclectic city demographic, then concludes with the equally spurious and banal business of calculating a lifespan, with no regard for the content of said life.

Alcoholism is, without doubt, a real and destructive phenomenon. However, what the Save Dave debacle represents is the casual manner in which we are all being cast as potentially troublesome drinkers today. That such a sensationalist leaflet came through my door is evidence of everyday drinking being slowly denormalised. The campaign implies that potential alcoholism is normal. Through the eyes of these decidedly un-targeted awareness campaigns, we are all cast as an amorphous mass of Daves, potential addicts in denial.

As a contemporary health scare, the Save Dave campaign feels clumsily familiar. It shares the creepy and crude logic of today’s stranger danger mentality. A precautionary principle once espoused in the odd school assembly is now a moral dictum applied to all human relations: watch out, the abuser or addict could be your husband, or the bloke next door. Such an approach also individuates the problem of alcoholism and encourages therapeutic or pseudo-therapeutic interventions off the back of mere suspicions.

Brighton is at the cutting edge of Britain’s current prohibitionary zeal. Trends such as the increasingly wanton use of the ID age checks in alcohol purchases are overtly Orwellian, afflicting Brighton as much as other British cities. But the Save Dave campaign is part of a raft of health initiatives that we really have to watch. Such adverts speak to our internal health spy. They encourage us to measure ourselves and our friends against ‘concerning’ – and misleading – statistics. It’s not my Dave and your Dave who need saving, but the sense of proportion about what alcohol does to us, and just how dark that inner self is that is unleashed by the demon drink.

Anna Travis is a lecturer in English Literature and Cultural Studies, based in Brighton.

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