How do lighthearted media portrayals of people who “can’t stop” affect social norms?


Credit: Sarah Reid

Imagine two twenty-something men purchasing a disorganized armload of groceries. There’s some canned food, a few snacks, a six-pack of beer, a roll of toilet paper. The cashier hands back the credit card–it’s been rejected. The men fumble in their pockets and produce a wad of crumpled dollars bills. The cashier shakes her head, it’s not enough. The men push most of the food aside. Now they’re down to two items, toilet paper and beer. The cashier looks unimpressed. They can’t afford both items. The men stare for a long moment at the choice before them, and buy the beer.

It’s a painful story. These men are down to their last scraps of cash and they’ve passed up the most basic of necessities for alcohol. It seems likely that they have substance use disorders.

Now watch this Superbowl ad.

And now that same story is comedy, part of an exclusive league of commercials that companies pay millions of dollars to air. “Paper or Plastic” debuted in 1999, but the Bud Light advertisement is still being viewed on YouTube today.

Using humor to sell products is entertaining and memorable, at least when the ads manage to be as funny as they think they are. And this is a good ad – I chuckled when I watched it for the first time (and the second time…). So it’s achieving its intent: making me associate Bud Light with positive emotions. Hopefully (from Budweiser’s perspective), this will result in my choosing their products over someone else’s.

But when we think about story it’s actually telling, questions start to emerge. If the behavior portrayed is worthy of light humor here, doesn’t it begin to seem less problematic in the real world?

These types of effects are difficult to measure. You can’t compare the drinking habits of Americans today with a those of set of Americans who grew up in a parallel dimension devoid of alcohol ads. Plus, many of us can truthfully say “Sure, I laughed at that beer ad, but I don’t drink too much. I don’t see a harmful effect.” We like to think we’re too smart to be swayed by advertising.

Here’s another story for you. Imagine a young woman (not yet of legal drinking age) who has faced previous repercussions for her substance use. Specifically, she wears a court-ordered ankle bracelet which monitors whether any alcohol is present in her system. But you witness her smirking as she clips off the device with garden shears and opens her house to a huge party.

Go ahead and watch this video, now.

That’s what could be called the plotline of pop star Miley Cyrus’s 2013 hit “We Can’t Stop,” which indeed did not stop as it climbed the charts to #2 song in the United States. The video linked above will surpass 500 million views soon after I write this. Cyrus is primarily trying to sell you the music itself, some colorful speakers and lip balm, and the party-girl persona that defines her current branding. And she’s using risky substance use to make that seem more attractive.

When I was writing this article, I mentioned the ankle bracelet-severing to my roommate. She was one of the millions who had watched the video before, but she had never noticed the fleeting shot at the very beginning featuring the bracelet. Yet she knew the video was about an alcohol-fueled party, which is strange because even if you watch carefully, you’ll notice the complete absence of drinking on screen. The only liquid present is the water in the swimming pool.

No one can really claim that these characters are using anything. You could argue that maybe Cyrus disposed of her ankle bracelet to dance, 100% sober, with her giant teddy bear collection. The equation saying partying = alcohol is so ingrained in our minds that we don’t even need to see the booze to know it’s there.

The song doesn’t specifically reference alcohol either, but it would be strange to talk about it without pointing out the actual drug allusions it contains. The line “We like to party/Dancing with Molly,” references the club drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy. The wording was contested upon release, with the Miley Cyrus publicity team assuring the disapproving that it was “Dancing with Miley,” but Cyrus herself set the record straight: “It depends who’s doing what. If you’re aged ten [the lyric is] Miley, if you know what I’m talking about then you know.”

That quote actually sums up the video’s depiction of substance use pretty well. “If you know what I’m talking about, then you know.”

Of course, Cyrus is trying to ruffle feathers. Everything about “We Can’t Stop”–from the dance moves to the outfits–is designed to come across as wild, shocking, taboo, and thus alluring. The question is not whether we should approve of her personal or artistic choices, but how her cultivated media image influences the attitudes of her fans and even casual viewers.

What these two examples have in common is a lighthearted approach toward a serious topic. Again, it’s a challenge to see how these sorts media change public attitudes and behavior. But the fact that they’re out there says something about how the world sees substance use. Popular depictions of risky or harmful substance use as innocuous aren’t matters of concern because they’re going to directly cause people to start chugging cases of Bud Light–they’re worth consideration because they make these extreme behaviors seem unremarkable.

For every music video featuring huge parties and beer ad that blatantly flouts its own advice to “Drink responsibly,” these concepts seem a little more commonplace, ordinary, not a big deal. It’s something to think about.


Missing My Crazy Self–Finding Myself – A great essay on personal and societal obsessions with partying

Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you – Washington Post Wonkblog breaks down American drinking habits

IMG_1401Leila Giles started working at IRETA in December 2013. She is involved in online projects such as newsletters, webinars, and the website; managing IRETA’s social media presence; and creating videos and graphics. She holds a B.S. in Communications Media from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her past work experiences have ranged from serving as a production assistant in Hollywood to answering phones for a congressperson in Washington.