Some anti-drinking advertising campaigns may backfire by inadvertently glamorising the habit, say researchers.
The study, led by the University of Bath, said focusing on idiotic behaviour carried out when drunk may be “catastrophically misconceived”.
The researchers warned that young people might see such behaviour as a way to assert their social identity.
Drinking stories also deepened bonds of friendship and cemented membership of a peer group, they said.
Tales of alcohol-related mishaps and escapades were key markers of young peoples’ social identity
Professor Christine Griffin
University of Bath
The Bath team found adverts which show drunken incidents – such as being thrown out of a nightclub, or passing out in a doorway – are often seen by young people as being typical of a “fun” night out, rather than as a cautionary tale.
Whilst these adverts – such as drinks manufacturer Diageo’s “The Choice Is Yours” campaign – imply that being very drunk with friends carries a penalty of social disapproval, for many young people the opposite is often the case.
Lead researcher Professor Christine Griffin said: “Extreme inebriation is often seen as a source of personal esteem and social affirmation amongst young people.
“Our detailed research interviews revealed that tales of alcohol-related mishaps and escapades were key markers of young peoples’ social identity.”
Professor Griffin added that being the subject of an extreme drinking story could raise esteem among a peer group.
Professor Chris Hackley, from Royal Holloway, University of London, also worked on the study.
He said: “Inebriation within the friendship group is often part of a social bonding ritual that is viewed positively and linked with fun, friendship and good times, although some young people can be the target of humiliating or risky activities.
“This suggests that anti-drinking advertising campaigns that target this kind of behaviour may be catastrophically misconceived.”
The research, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council, involved in-depth interviews with 94 young people in three UK regions over a period of three years.
Professor Hackley said: “The study suggests a radical rethinking of national alcohol policy is required which takes into account the social character of alcohol consumption and the identity implications for young people.”
Professor Isabelle Szmigin, from the University of Birmingham, who also worked on the study, said many young people were aware that drinking too much could damage their health.
However, few saw this as more than a short-term problem.
Frank Soodeen, of the charity Alcohol Concern, said: “Binge drinking is often treated as nothing more than a source of amusing anecdotes.
“Research into the area suggests that for young people, messages have to be very hard-hitting to have a chance of working, with more reference to physical safety than lost social prestige.”
Diageo said it had carried out extensive research to ensure its campaign would resonate strongly with young people, and was confident they would have a positive effect.
“Our research showed that young adults were much more likely to consider drinking responsibly if they believed that by drinking excessively they would be in danger of losing their social credibility and standing – precisely the message our campaigns convey.”