Posted on May 20th, 2012
Have you ever managed to sit through an episode of Mad Men without wanting to cradle a glass of something strong? If the answer to this is no, then not to worry, it’s human nature. Scientific tests have proven that watching characters consume alcoholic drinks either in a TV series or a film has an immediate effect on our desire to head to the fridge or the butler’s tray.
The study led by Rutger Engels, professor in developmental psychopathology at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, placed 20 male students in surroundings designed to emulate watching television at home. A fridge was placed in the same room containing both alcoholic and soft drinks. One half of the group was shown the movie American Pie, featuring 23 ‘drinking’ scenes and the other half of the group was shown the drier movie of 40 Days and 40 Nights featuring only three scenes with alcohol. On average those who watched American Pie drank twice the amount of alcohol than those who watched 40 Days and 40 Nights.
Perhaps this is not all that surprising. To start with, the subjects under test were students, keen enthusiasts of anything ‘free’ and secondly, the ‘alcoholic’ film they were shown, American Pie, appeals exactly to male testosterone-fuelled drinking sessions. Is it any wonder that the guys who watched it drank twice as much? Nonetheless, the experiment was the first of its kind to show a direct effect between the exposure of alcohol on television to viewers’ immediate drinking behaviour.
Commenting on the study, Professor Engels noted, “Our study clearly shows that alcohol portrayals in films and advertisements not only affects people’s attitudes and norms on drinking in society, but it might work as a cue that affects craving and subsequent drinking in people who are drinkers. This might imply that, for example, while watching an ad for a particular brand of beer, you are not only more prone to buy that brand next time you are in the supermarket, but also that you might go immediately to the fridge to take a beer.”
In the current crop of popular series there can’t be a better advert for drinking than Mad Men. The suave but steely Don Draper is rarely seen without a glass of Canadian Club. If you learn anything about the ad business in the 50s and 60s by watching Mad Men, it’s that drinking was endemic. Even Peggy, the good Catholic girl struggling with her feminist impulses regularly drinks through her creative spells, her tipple of choice being Jameson – naturally – and it seems little in the Irish whisky’s label has changed in the last half century. What I couldn’t help but notice during series three and four is that Lane, the archetypal ‘proper’ Englishman, is the only character to actually pour his drink from a crystal decanter as opposed to a bottle. We can only presume what it might contain and the same goes for Roger Stirling, Draper’s rather infantile partner whose drink of choice could be either vodka or gin. One thing we know for sure, it’s definitely not water as Mad Men is all about glamourizing the spirit. It’s a far cry from watching Mo sink a gin and tonic in the Queen Vic on EastEnders, the local boozer being the epicentre of any English soap opera.
So as you’re watching the dark horse that is Don Draper knock back the bourbon do you want to follow suit? According to Professor Engels, one does and it is a fact that can be corroborated by one of Tonique’s co-founders, who shall remain nameless, but who, with the help of a companion, managed to get through a 4.5litre bottle of The Macallan over a period of two weeks whilst watching series two of the ad drama. And no, that was not a typo, I’ll write it in full just to be sure: a four and a half litre bottle of The Macallan. I am sure it was all in the name of science.
Whilst it’s very much about the grain in Mad Men, one series that undoubtedly celebrates the grape is Brothers and Sisters, in which the Walker family alone must be responsible for consuming at least a quarter of the spoils of California’s pinot noir crop. If Mad Men is criticised for glorifying alcohol, then surely Brothers and Sisters must have this criticism levelled against it too by those who are concerned about such trivialities. I have yet to watch an episode without the pop of a cork on screen and admit that it’s rare I watch it without a glass of something white and cold in my hand.
I’m not sure how much truck I hold with the argument that alcohol on TV encourages binge drinking or alcoholism. For the great majority alcohol is a social pastime. Just as we don’t criticise television for spawning other trends, (one that springs to mind is Carrie Bradshaw’s stylising of the visible bra strap), why single out its portrayal of alcohol? Having said that, Bradshaw did as much for fashion as she did in propelling the comeback of the Cosmopolitan. The flip side of all this however, are the television programmes and films which make you never ever want to have another drink again. Take Hank Moody, David Duchovny’s down, out and debauched character in Californication who’s on a one way track to Loserville thanks to his drinking habit (amongst others). Or from another perspective, Downton Abbey, where the Granthams appear to have a cellar bigger than the Rothschilds yet drink very little of the five separate wines served at dinner, if any. A decadence of another sort.
Damages is another drama that I can’t make my mind up about. Do the career driven, tougher-than-a-Rottweiler- characters of Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons who sit sipping hard liquor make you want to join them? No. They make you want to drink hot chocolate, cuddle a teddy bear and perhaps open a Montessori nursery. Which leads me to my conclusion: it’s not so much about the alcohol, but the person who’s drinking it.