Sunday, March 22, 2009

Semiotics and Alcohol

In Chapter 8, Baran and Davis write, “Media affect society because they affect how culture is created, learned, shaped, and applied” (Baran & Davis 199). In this quote, Baran and Davis argue that media directly shape a culture’s values and beliefs, and therefore, the messages we get from the media cause us to behave and think in certain ways.

In consuming media, we are consuming an infinite number of symbols. People who study semiotics, which is the study of symbols, try to figure out how people interpret symbols and how their interpretations affect both individuals’ lives and a culture as a whole. Therefore, my blog is going to focus on how alcohol is symbolized in the media, the messages linked to this symbolization, and if these messages affect our culture.

We all know that alcohol use is extremely common in college campuses across the country. In an article from USA Today from March 11, 2009, author Mary Beth Marklain writes, “Nearly half of college freshmen who drink alcohol spend more time drinking each week than they do studying, suggests a survey involving more than 30,000 first-year students on 76 campuses who took an online alcohol education course last fall” ( This finding indicates that drinking is obviously an important part of college life and culture.

In the media, alcohol is glorified. People shown in alcohol commercials are depicted as popular, outgoing, and sociable. Advertisements for alcohol picture people who are attractive and glamorous (for example, this advertisement for Skyy Vodka - These outgoing, sociable, attractive, and glamorous people are symbols we learn to associate with alcohol. Therefore, the message linked to these symbols is that if you drink, you can be like these people too. In article by Judith Williamson in McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory called “Meaning and Ideology” Williamson writes, “…diamonds may be marketed by likening them to eternal love, creating a symbolism where the mineral means something not in its own terms, as a rock, but in human terms, as a sign. Thus a diamond comes to ‘mean’ love and endurance for us” (McQuail 300). Diamonds are advertised in such a way that we link them to love and endurance, while alcohol is advertised in a way that links drinking to making a person more popular and more attractive. However, is that really the case? MTV’s annual broadcast of spring break in Cancun shows plenty of young people drinking heavily, yet fails to show any of the consequences resulting from their partying. In portraying alcohol so positively, the media often ignores showing its negative effects. What do you think? Do you think increasing levels of alcohol use and alcoholism in college students is a direct effect of the symbols and message linked to alcohol in the media? If alcohol was not so glorified in the media do you think it would be as big of a problem on college campuses as it is today? Or do the media not really play any role in determining college students’ drinking habits?


  1. I agree with the idea that alcohol is glamorized by the media, and that it is portrayed as something that results with people fitting in with a group and having a fabulous, outgoing experience that allows people to socialize and have a good time. However, I do not think increasing levels of alcohol use and alcoholism in college students is a direct effect of these symbols and messages. College, for many people, is a place where partying is an aspect of life and college living. It is also a place where many people get sloppy and pass out on numerous occasions throughout a four year period. I think that if this alcohol use was a direct result of these symbols and messages, people would model the commercials and advertisements they observe, which do not include keg stands, taking shots, or blacking out and passing out. This is more typical of college students than the glamorous and beautiful association made through commercials for products like Skyy Vodka.
    I don’t view alcohol as a problem on college campuses today. To me, it is something that needs to be kept under control and monitored so that nobody gets hurt and things do not get out of hand. Alcohol use and alcoholism are two different things. Alcoholism in college students is often a problem which is the result of partying too much, too often. I don’t think it’s a result of watching a few too many life-altering Smirnoff commercials. I think it is glorified by the media just as other products are simply because that is what sells. Glamour, being popular, and the idea that you can become a part of something bigger such as a social circle always sell a product. It works with toys for the sandbox just as effectively as it works with alcohol. In McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, Judith Williamson explains that “advertisements must take into account not only the inherent qualities and attributes of the products they are trying to sell, but also the way in which they can make those properties mean something to us” (299). This ideology and method used in advertising applies to all products, not just alcohol.
    I guess I don’t really think the media plays too much of a role in determining college students’ drinking habits. If anything, I think it plays a role in either high school students’ drinking habits, because of the level of immaturity and how easily influenced they can be during those years, or older adults’ drinking habits, since it can be a time when people are confronted by certain ideologies which may involve dealing with family, professional, or strictly social issues. Chapter 8 of Baran & Davis explains that “ideology fostered a “false consciousness” in the minds of average people so they came to support elite interest rather than their own” (207). People always say that college is a different world from reality, and I think this applies to the use of alcohol as well. Most college students are not trying to drink glamorously or fit in by drinking a particular type of alcohol; they are, most of the time, just trying to have fun with friends and get rid of the stress of the week.

  2. Excellent article(s) !
    Yes, my late husband & I were easily lured into drinking, by our very first employers ! Wanting to succeed in our Career goals, of course we jumped in, as well, being from poor families, we didn't want to end up as poor adults ! However, had we have known the extreme possibilities of permenant severe health damage, after 30 yrs of moderate drinking, never being off from work for sickness, even once, gee, we learned the hard way, to say the least !
    Since his death 23 months ago now, I've devoted my time to spreading the word. Discovering, there are may individuals like ourselves, never drunk nor this ludicrous binging garbage, but near 99% have never shared their story with anyone, due to shame/embarressment !

    The common most afflicted illness's, currently are (& in unknown order): Grand-Mal Seizures, Progressive Blindness, Progressive Deafness, Steadly Corroded Livers & Heart Attacks.
    None having any cure's what-so-ever !

    Many of us have been trying unsuccessfully to somehow convince our Government Officials (Canadian), of the desperate need to legislate mandatory Health Warning Labels on all liquor containers, similar to whats already been done to Cigarette Manufacturers, except we've not asked for the derogatory photo's !

    Unfortunately though, our youth are following in our grimy, slimy, multitude of footsteps, even as we speak !
    So when all us old farts have been dropped off at the entrance to many Seniors Nursing Homes, to be diaperred & spoon fed, who's going to take over our many Professions, if our young people, have also destroyed their health ???

    May God have mercy on us all !

    And to think, because of the freaking, almighty drink !!

    Sheila Joyce Gibbs

  3. I totally agree that alcohol is glorified in the media. According to Chapter 27 Judith Williamson Meaning and Ideology, “Advertisement are one of the most important cultural factors molding and reflecting our life today” ( McQuail reader299). Alcohol advertisement is a prime example of how advertisement mold and reflect our life today. Young adults to teenagers see these advertisement and commercial for Alcohol. And assume that drinking alcohol is a glamorized life style without any consequences. I believe that the media rarely shows the negative sides of alcohol because alcohol and underage drinking is big business. Imagine if all the big alcohol companies started promoting the nasty side effects of alcohol such as puking, hangover, blackouts, and loss of memory. Or maybe long terms sever health effects of alcohol drinking like Cirrhosis of the liver which is a condition in which the liver slowly deteriorates. This can be cause by many years of heavy drinking. By MTV and others not showing the negative effects of alcohol drinking they are actually hurting the youth and young adults. I totally agree that the increase of alcohol use and alcoholism in college students is a direct effect of the symbols and message linked to alcohol in the media. According to Baran & Davis Chapter 11 , “the existence of these sign systems encourages certain actions and discourages others” (332) I agree with this statement without the advertisement portraying alcohol as a positive thing ,such as a way to get popular in social settings, and being more attractive. Then alcohol would not be such a big or a lesser problem on college campuses, because college students would know the negative and positive sides about drinking.

  4. The text states, “Social institutions, including political, economic, and educational institutions, might be disrupted and transformed as media institutions play an increasingly central role in contemporary societies”(Baraan 199). I feel in regards to college a lot of issues played out in the media may disrupt the usual flow of things, but I feel like alcohol isn’t one of these things.

    As of late media attention has been focusing on the negatives of alcohol. Yes, there are still commercials where “glamorous people” are shown drinking. But, for every one of these commercials there’s a show like Intervention or Celebrity Rehab. There is also of constant criticisms of celebrities partying habits or “pAArtying” habits as Perez Hilton would say. I think the media has been portraying it in a negative light for years. Plus there are so many commercials telling viewers about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

    Since there has been all this negative attention to alcohol in the media, I don’t think the media can be blamed for alcohol problems on campus. Alcohol has sold its self for years. If any blame could be placed on the media, it should be on how the media portrays college, not how the media portrays alcohol. In every show or movie about college a constant emphasis is placed on the party lifestyle. There is rarely a college movie or show that doesn’t focus on partying. This definitely affects how people view college. Because of media like this college students get an impression of college before they even enter. Students get the idea that certain schools are just constant parties and want to apply there. These movies and lists such as biggest party schools are to blame for the higher percentage of drinkers not how alcohol is portrayed as something to make you cooler.

  5. I think the media plays a substantial role in glamorizing alcohol among young people today. When celebrities are in the media, 8 times out of 10, they are being photographed leaving clubs, or at a party, or on some sort of vacation. Today, we are obsessed with celebrities, so it only makes sense that we would want to be just like them and do everything they do. Most, especially the ones our ages, are known for partying and leading insane lives. In terms of advertisements, alcohol clearly has a specific agenda. They are filled with beautiful people, or people meeting one another having a good time. I have even heard that Justin Timberlake is coming out with his own line of tequila. I can't imagine what those ads will be like, and I am sure every girl will want to try it.

    Baron and Davis state, "Media have become a primarily means by which many of us experience or learn about many aspects of the world around us. Even when we don't learn about these things directly from the media, we learn about them from other people who get the ir ideas of the world from the media"(200). Growing up, what we see in the media is constantly affecting us. I remember in my young teens, my older cousins seeing movies like "American Pie," and hearing how they are going on spring break. From a young age, we are socialized into what thinking college life will be like, and everyone wants to live up to those ideas. I think it's important though, that as we grow from our four year college experience, we learn the truth about drinking too much. I think at our age, especially as media studies students, we now know what advertisements and the media are doing to us, and know to not believe everything we see and read.

  6. As far as the subject of alcohol advertising goes, I think most is aimed at an older demographic. Advertisers don't create their material in the hopes of attracting high-school and college age people. Advertisers target those who can actually purchase and consume the product. That's not to say that those who aren't of legal drinking age can't obtain alcohol, because we all know they do, but that's not the intent of the advertisers. Advertisers aren't trying to draw in underage drinkers, they're playing to their established consumer base.

    Settings in alcohol advertisements vary depending on the type of alcohol- I feel like ads for beer take place in more casual settings, like a backyard or a sporting event, whereas ads for liquor have more upscale settings, like bars or lounges. The ads are aimed to grab the attention of the appropriate demographic.

    Alcohol advertisements that do target young adults often focus on preventing drunk driving, the negative effects of drinking, avoiding peer pressure, and so on. Therefore, I do think that the media affects the drinking habits/ actions of young people, but in a positive way. College students are more likely to base their drinking choices on their peers and the general view of college life rather than portrayals in advertisements. Although the text does comment on the use of symbols transforming the socialization process (303) I feel that the majority of young students are influenced more so by other people and not how alcohol is symbolized in the media.

  7. The social semiotics theory appeals to both cultural and critical theorists by in part giving value to both qualitative and quanitative research traditions (B&D 331). How can I establish if there is a strong link between college drinking or youth drinking and the media? Hayley suggests that it is a direct effect of the symbols in the media. This places a high importance on semiotics.
    Baron and Davis create a sequential order to the effectiveness of the semiotics theory. Sign systems (semiotics) lead the way for interpreting and using signs (semiosis) in which our interpretations of signs shape and are shaped by our special social environment (situated activity) (B&D 332). Rather than target the college age group, it is important to point out that the youth are exposed to the “positive effects” of alcohol i.e. popularity. Health classes are focusing on alcohol awareness, an experience that I’ve had. Right away we are told at a young age that alcohol is bad before you are 21 and in excess. That being said I find strong forbidden symbolism driving a lot of teens and college students.
    In 10 Things I Hate About You all of the characters attend a party held by a fellow high school student. His on edge attitude indicates his parents, who are not present, are unaware of the party let alone the alcohol consumption. This is just one example that indicates the role alcohol has on youth.
    I do agree that alcohol is glorified, but a negative side to values and beliefs is that we sometimes want what we cannot have or are told not to value. When college students come to college their new independence can be a catalyst for these “anti-values.” The extreme would be that the excessive drinking is a result of symbolic interactionism in which people give meaning to symbols and that those meanings come to control those people (B&D 301). In terms of alcohol consumption, aside from alcoholism as a hereditary disease, I think that people do know what they are doing when consuming alcohol. College students are very aware that alcohol may symbolize having an active social life.
    In the end, whether it be for popularity or going against “authority” the alcohol topic is very prevalent and it is no secret that it is the most visible on college campuses. To bring it back to the social semiotics theory, alcohol symbolizes both glorification and rebellion against society in which college students interpret by acting out their desires of rebellion.

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