Why health warnings on alcohol are utterly pointless

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He was a founder of BETC London, has run agencies in London, Amsterdam and the US and has worked on brands including Johnnie Walker, PlayStation and Sony Ericsson.

The week gets of to a flyer with an all-party parliamentary group decreeing that, after much deliberation, alcohol misuse needs to be managed by printing warning labels on bottles. Apart from the obvious joke that clearly they are all anything but 'all-party', I can't think of a more pointless idea. It doesn't work. It never has worked. It's ducking the issue and the solution.

There is either a lack of insight into how communications influence people or it's too hard to swallow, and this time it's not another drink-based pun.

What happens is this. Words don't create anywhere as much impact as visual things. People convert things they read into little visual mental coat hangars in their heads. Our brains are a cupboard of pictures, not words. If you want to be remembered be visual, don't write things on labels. No one will remember them.

In addition people have a much much more powerful and immediate reaction to visuals than they do words. As I've said above, they go into the brain differently and cause a different reaction. If I were to describe a truly horrible image to you, you may well think it sounds unpleasant, in a kind of intellectual 'let me think about it' type of way. If I were to show you a picture of the same thing you may well wretch, your eyes may water and there is a good chance you will either vomit or at least feel pretty sick. That's the power of visuality vs words. Which one will you remember and which one will affect you the most?

I dispute that printing anything on cigarette packets made much contribution to the smoking issue. I grew up with a picture of James Dean on my bedroom wall smoking which burns much brighter in my memory than a statement on the packet. The decline of smoking occurred for other reasons.

I expect the way to improve the situation with alcohol abuse is to replace it with something else, less harmful, that fulfils the need in the alcohol occasion currently fulfils. And in terms of communications I think we need to be clear with people where there is a frightening line to addiction, and make that line truly frightening.

Communication works by focusing on truth. The truth about what happens to people's health when the drink consistently too much is horrible. The truth about how they die is often horrible. I am afraid if society wants to deal with the issue we may need to make people vomit before they even take a drink.

Matthew Charlton is chief executive of Brothers and Sisters

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