Drinkaware is a UK charity that aims to change the nation’s drinking habits for the better. Previous work had suggested that TV soaps – apparently true-to-life dramas watched by millions each week – might be portraying alcohol in an overly favourable light. But Drinkaware needed solid evidence of this before using it to advocate change, both in the public sphere and directly to TV producers.
The aim of the study was to test Drinkaware hypothesis thoroughly, and also to determine how much of an effect this might be having on viewers, particularly those under 18. The research also aimed at quantifying the portrayal of alcohol in the four top soaps and assessing whether this was positive or negative, providing details about characters’ drinking habits, the repercussions (if any) of their drinking, and the likely influence of their behaviour on audience groups. We had six weeks to complete the fieldwork and a further month to analyse the data.
We used our in-house broadcast monitoring department to capture six weeks’ worth of footage of the four soaps: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks. Kantar Media came up a way of analysing the footage based around characters and drinks, qualifying how alcohol was being referenced in each context.
We provided clear evidence that soaps were indeed portraying alcohol in an unrealistic way, with most scenes depicting characters drinking alcohol to aid social bonding or relieve stress. Few showed alcohol’s harmful effects and most negative associations with alcohol were driven by specific storylines, such as Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell descending into alcoholism.
Drinkaware issued a press release entitled “Soaps portray alcohol consumption through rose tinted glasses”, and published an article on their website. As well as exposing Emmerdale as top of the “tipple tally”, it contained several eye-catching statements. For example, over a third of scenes involved alcohol, and 17% showed characters actively consuming, buying, or accepting it. In all, characters consumed 836 alcoholic drinks – around 3,000 units of alcohol – and drank to excess 162 times. But only 12 scenes referenced hangovers. The story reached a wide audience, with press and online circulation figures in the region of eight million and coverage ranging from the Daily Mirror and Metro to educational trade publications.
Our report’s executive summary contained headline figures for all four soaps. But instead of the usual measured conclusions and recommendations, Drinkaware wanted punchy sound bites to feed to the press, so we provided as many of these as possible. Our detailed analysis for each soap presented datasets as simple charts, backed up with written analysis highlighting key areas of concern. After submitting the report, we remained on hand to re-examine the data in response to specific questions from the client as they prepared their advocacy materials.