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Industry-funded DrinkWise under the microscope

Friday, 26 August 2016

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New ECU research has re-ignited the debate concerning the alcohol industry’s role in reducing alcohol-related harms.

Rachel Pietracatella and Dr Danielle Brady investigated the claims made by DrinkWise, an alcohol industry-funded organisation, about their objectives.

DrinkWise claim to be conducting an education and social marketing campaign promoting responsible drinking messages to change the culture of drinking. The researchers investigated these claims by analysing DrinkWise’s media releases over a period of five years, as well as the way the organisation framed the alcohol issue.

Ms Pietracatella said content analysis showed a very low presence of the messages that DrinkWise claimed were part of the campaign. 

“A majority of media release messages were directed to a broader group of stakeholders than the parents who were the supposed targets of the social marketing campaign,” she said.

“What this means is that DrinkWise is not doing what they say they are doing, rendering the likelihood of behaviour change through media relations improbable.

“We believe the communication was targeted to elites and policy makers in order to influence public policy through news media,” Ms Pietracella said.

Framing responsibility

Dr Brady said the findings also showed the building of a protective media agenda through the incorporation of the agenda building techniques of framing and information subsidies.  

“When the media pick up the DrinkWise ‘industry friendly’ frame, it can impact on who we blame or hold responsible for alcohol problems,” Dr Brady said.

“We found that DrinkWise messages tended to blame parents, and culture in general, for children’s drinking habits. This ultimately shifts blame away from the industry, ignoring the role of alcohol marketing in causing alcohol-related harms,” she said.

Public relations not public interest

The researchers concluded that DrinkWise’s ‘responsible’ drinking campaigns are not social marketing and are not in the public interest.  Rather, they are public relations campaigns, a form of indirect lobbying, serving to protect the alcohol industry from increased government regulation by deflecting industry responsibility for the issue. 

They said critical public relations research had a role to play in vigilance of social aspects public relations organisations like DrinkWise, who work against public health concerns to maintain industry profits.  DrinkWise’s claims of independence of the alcohol industry and its positioning as a health organisation have been repudiated by the analysis of their own media releases.

Ms Pietracatella said not one evidence-based strategy known to reduce alcohol consumption was advocated by DrinkWise in a sample of 54 consecutive media releases.

“Public health research tells us that a reduction in alcohol consumption is required to reduce alcohol-related harms. No industry-funded group will support a reduction in industry profits so ultimately the goals of the alcohol industry are at cross-purposes to those of public health and we should continue to question drinking messages offered by DrinkWise,” she said.

Ms Pietracatella and Dr Brady are researchers in ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities. Their research was published in Media International Australia. It has also been discussed in ‘Drink Tank’, the blog of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE).

At ECU, we’re committed to research that has strong social, economic, environmental and cultural impact. If you want to make a practical difference to people’s lives, enquire now about a postgraduate research degree.

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