A is for Arthur, advertising and alcohol

Jim Carroll from The Irish Times

It ’s a blackout. This is what happens when you are a major drinks brand with a very large advertising and sponsorship budget and you want to brand a day as your own. Historically, days were named after saints, but this Arthur ’s feastday is a far different proposition to the lesser-known St Arthur. This Arthur has been pressganged into action after all these years to help the Guinness brand raise their profile and flog their products on the back of hundreds of bands and gigs up and down the country. It ’s a perfect quid-pro-quid for all involved: bands get to play a paid gig, bars are full and the Guinness brand has a day when it appears to be king of the world.

But takeovers (or blackouts) are never quite as comfortable as the semiotics might suggest. While we ’ve got used to the ballet between bands and brands (more on this below), the sheer scale of the Arthur ’s Day buzz is on another scale entirely. Like the Guinness takeover of Cork every October with the jazz festival, traditionally done to thumb the nose at local rivals, there does not appear to be any other game in town today. And at a time when this society ’s abusive relationship with alcohol is something which demands serious attention (more on this below too), where does a day which has been hijacked by one specific drinks brand, which comes all these weird connotations with Irishness and heritage, fit in?

This patch of black space is not sponsored by or does not endorse any drinks brand

Let ’s start with the bands and brands thing. This is a subject which has been discussed on OTR before as brands continue to flex their muscles and splash the cash in pursuit of association and the feelgood factor. At a time when bands have seen their revenue from traditional sources disappear  – the manager of a successful Irish band recently told me that they said don ’t keep a close watch on record sales as was once the case because the numbers now are so low  – the arrival of brands keen to get involved with specific acts or the business has been welcomed by many.

But brands have demands of their own in return for the lucre and those demands are naturally increasing in volume as brands realise that they now have the upper hand. He who pays the tone-deaf drummer calls the tunes and all of that. For all the acts who stand up to this co-opting and stick to their guns and integrity, there are many (many) others who will snap off the brands ’ hand and ask  “do you want us to wear your t-shirts onstage as well? ” It ’s increasingly what bands have to deal with on a regular basis and the ethics of saying yes to something which you might not necessarily agree with 100% is becoming more and more of an issue.

When it comes to Arthur ’s Day, there have been some criticisms of how the focus of the publicity around the event has been on the big foreign acts rather than homegrown acts. While there are hundreds of Irish acts playing today in pubs up and down the country, the bulk of the publicity has been around acts like Mumford & Sons, Primal Scream, Tinie Tempah, Mika and Example. Steve Wall from The Walls and The Stunning has been to the fore in speaking out about the lack of PR for the Irish acts on the bill. While Wall has pointed out that he has  “absolutely nothing against Guinness ”  – his band are playing the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival after all  – he says that Arthur ’s Day  “feels like Irish bands are once again playing second fiddle to a load of imported UK acts who get the bulk of the publicity, the money and the exposure, at a time when Irish acts need it the most ”.

But that ’s what the brand wants, probably because the brand knows full well that this is what will generate the most interest from punters in their event. It ’s not that an Irish-associated brand have to support Irish music  – an Irish-associated brand, like any brand, have to sell enough product from an event to make sure it ’s a commercial success. It ’s also not about talent or quality or pulling power  – Irish acts more than match up in this regard  – but it ’s what the brand want. And what the brand wants, when the brand is spending all of this cash (and they ’re spending like billyo on this thing), is what the brand gets.

[I’m chairing a discussion on Bands & Brands at the Hard Working Class Heroes Convention in Dublin on Friday October 5. We’ve left a space on the panel for anyone – act or otherwise – who has a strong opionion on this issue and would like to participate. If you’d like to be considered, let me know in the comments below].

Then, there ’s the issue with Irish society and alcohol in general. At last night ’s Banter yakking on the summer of the Swedish House Mafia, this issue dominated the discussion, both with the panel and the audience. No-one is denying that this abusive relationship exists, wrecks lives and causes deaths but the question remains about how to deal with it. There are many possible scenarios here, from education to enforcement of existing laws to new measures (panelist Brian Boyd suggested that alcohol branding should be along similar lines to cigarettes, with whiskey bottles and beer cans featuring photos of what alcohol abuse can do to you).

But it comes down to a society-wide will to actually do something about this, a will which doesn ’t quite appear to exist no matter what we say. The presence of vested interests also have a big impact on this. For instance, it will be telling to see what influence these parties have had on ex-Minister of State for Health Roisin Shortall ’s action plan on alcohol, which is due to finally appear before cabinet next week. It will also be telling to see how Shortall ’s former government colleagues will react to this plan and how many will own up to getting lobbied by those vested interests when they stand up to criticise this or that in the plan. Then, there ’s the not insignificant matter of how much revenue the Government takes from alcohol sales, the number of jobs which the sector produces and the fact that drinks sponsorship is all around us (see the upcoming Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Final replay this coming Sunday) and you can see why that will is sometimes not there.

Yet there are times when there are bigger issues than financial ones. The health aspects of alcohol abuse surely outweigh all this. Factor in the number of deaths, hospital admissions and miserable, unhappy families which can be called alcohol-related and you can begin to see the need for a swing in the what-aboutery game. It ’s not time for a change, because a change is long overdue, but it ’s time for the talking to stop. Or, at least, for someone involved to man up and admit the truth about why nothing will change.

And then Arthur ’s Day comes along whistling a merry tune as it ambles onto this pitch. Here ’s a day dedicated to an alcoholic brand because that brand have  “bought ” the day and thus, you have wall to wall media coverage, from paid-for supplements in national newspapers to paid-for TV shows. Sure, there ’s lip service paid to the need for responsible drinking and all of that and you can ’t overlook how much of a role personal responsility plays on all of this. But it ’s clear that lip service is simply not enough. The problem is that it ’s not simply up to Guinness or the bands or the bars or our elected representatives or their paid lobbyists to sort this one out. The question is where ’s that will is going to come from or if it even exists. Or if, as one audience member put it at Banter last night, will we be still talking about this issue in five or 10 years time?