Archive for August 11th, 2010

The Drink Talking

When I said a certain drinks firm had a history of producing alcoholics, I thought I was making a fairly uncontroversial factual statement, but it looks like I was wrong: it is controversial, or at least it is by Twitter standards.

So let me explain why that firm has a history of producing alcoholics, and why it ought not be controversial to say so. I am sorry for going to some length in doing so, but sometimes the most obvious things are the most tedious to explain.

Before I do so, let me say I don’t think it matters too much that this firm in particular has produced alcoholics: it is not that we could expect a company that produces alcoholic drinks, in so far as it does so in order to generate profit, to worry a whole lot about other things it produces, in so far as these do not generate a profit.

What seems to be arousing the controversy -perhaps controversy is too strong a word- is a rather narrow definition of the verb ‘to produce’.

According to this view of production, you can’t say the firm produces alcoholics because it can’t be proved that it ever consciously pursued a strategy to do so. Where is the documentary evidence of the boardroom meeting down the graveyard at midnight? Where are the Powerpoints with the customer segmentation graphs, with the purple blotchy pie slice labelled ‘alcoholics’?

‘Production’ applied in this sense only means producing those things that have been officially designated as its products.

But all industry produces things other than those things it eventually sells as commodities. An electricity plant may produce electricity, but it also produces pollution. A call centre may produce assistance in resolving billing queries, but it also produces irate customers and stressed employees.

And there is no reason to confine production to describe merely the activity of organised industry, or even of conscious subjects. Photosynthesis produces sugars, and yet in doing so, somehow fails to leave an e-mail trail showing who told it to do so. My little hen produces eggs for my tea, but not because it has been moved by my song inquiring as to when when when it might do so. It just produces eggs for my tea because that is what comes naturally.

It is in this broader sense of production, and not in the sense of an officially sanctioned activity within an organisation, that I assert the drinks firm produces alcoholics.

It might be claimed at this point that alcoholics produce themselves, by drinking alcohol, and that however a drinks company might direct its activities has frig all to do with it. So let me address this.

For a man to produce himself as an alcoholic, he needs to have a concept of what alcohol is. Equally important, he needs access to alcohol. This requires someone to put the idea of alcohol before him, and someone to produce the alcohol. If, through some Robinson Crusoe-style shenanigans, he discovers alcohol himself, and brews it himself, then drinks companies have not participated in the production of his alcoholism. Arthur and the rest are quite clearly off the hook.

On the other hand, if he is introduced to alcohol through a particular type of alcohol product in a particular setting, in which alcohol is easily accessible and the consumption of alcohol is broadly encouraged, in which drunkenness is considered normal, in which he is told that alcohol is in fact good for his health, and that it is even a fundamental element of his national existence, then we need to think about the roles of the drinks industry, and of particular firms within that industry, in producing his alcoholism. In these circumstances, it cannot be concluded at the outset that his alcoholism has not been produced by the drinks company. This does not mean that the man himself has had no role in producing himself as an alcoholic, just as a call centre worker may have participated in producing his own high blood pressure.

Now, all these elements -supply environment, pricing, social sanction, advertising and propaganda- determine the general level of consumption of alcohol in a given space. And in so far as any drinks producer influences any of these things in a way that broadens and raises alcohol consumption in the population, it also engages in the production of alcoholics. This is not to say that its primary, explicitly articulated objective is the production of alcoholics, any more than my little hen’s primary, explicitly articulated objective is the production of an egg for my tea.

I might add at this point that I have seen it said that production as an activity is a positive activity. I do not really know what this means. But I am guessing that it means that production, if it can be said to exist, only exists in terms of being geared toward the thing that has been posited as the product. So, following this, production for the drinks industry is just drinks. Even if we accept this view -and I do not, since a cow does not posit milk as its eventual product, and a ‘by-product’, even if it is never the main object to be produced, is still a product- it ought to be pointed out that the drinks industry does not merely produce drinks. It also produces the different components required to produce these drinks as a commodity, from basic ingredients through machinery through transportation, and so on. Not only that, but it seeks to produce things -advertising, pubs, packaging- that maximise, as far as possible, the optimal level of consumption of these drinks, thus maximising profitability. The goal of advertising is intended to attract more consumers, and to persuade existing consumers to continue to consume the product, preferably at higher levels. Another word for these consumers is drinkers. And the more drinkers you have, the more alcoholics you have.

I’m going on a bit, and rather than talk about the firm I mentioned previously, so far I’ve just talked about what production means, and what it means in the drinks industry, and the role of the drinks industry in producing alcoholics. And since I’m short for time, I’ll address the specific history of the firm I mentioned in another post tomorrow.

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August 2010