Alcohol and Drug Use in Movies

How do we get information about things in life? Through direct experience, through education, and through observation. Whilst most of our observation is of things going on around us in everyday life, a lot of our observation is through the media – that is rather than observing “real life” we observe the lives of others in fiction and it’s estranged sibling “reality TV”. We can make a conscious effort to separate out what is real from what is not but how often do we do so? Take alcohol and drug use for example. While most of us will have plenty of direct or observational experience of alcohol use in our own lives this is less often true for drug use. New Zealand survey data suggests that most of us have tried cannabis but certainly with other drugs the level of experience is substantially lower. A lot of what we do know about “hard drugs” is likely to be formed through our exposure to movies and television.

Dr Gavin Cape from the University of Otago has suggested that depictions of drug use in cinema fall in to five main groups: Tragic hero (e.g. Trainspotting, Leaving Las Vegas), Rebellious free spirit (e.g. Easy Rider), Demonised addict/homicidal mania (e.g. Reefer Madness, Once Were Warriors), and Humorous/Comedic user (e.g. Arthur, Saving Grace). . Movies often use stereotypes which can act as shortcuts so we can safely make some assumptions about a character’s back-story without the director needing to waste precious screen time. For example if someone is shown as an illegal drug user the connotation is of deviance, corruption, untrustworthiness, and mentally unstable. This raises the question of whether movies and the media more generally simply reflect social norms or help shape those norms. Movies can reinforce stereotypes, as famously occurs in the 1936 movie Reefer Madness showing drug crazed youth corrupted by cannabis. Alternately they can explore contentious social issues, for example the 2000 movie Traffic which sought to show the illegal drug trade from the perspective of various agents.

A recently released documentary by film-maker Martin Spurlock (POM Fabulous: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) puts the spotlight on the growing trend of product placement in cinema and on TV. Product placement is a subtle form of advertising whereby the product is visible and usually shown in a positive light as either incidental background or as a more explicit part of the script. We know when we are viewing a formal advertisement, while product placement is more insidious. Specifically by not being clearly identifiable as an advertisement we may fail to bring critical judgment to bear on the implied claims of a product. If a soft drink is advertised as healthy and for cool people we can decide whether or not this is plausible, but if we see a succession of representations of movie/TV characters who are healthy and cool consuming that soft drink we may have our perceptions for the product altered without us realizing it. As restrictions on advertising for smoking become stronger the ability to depict smoking in other forms of mass media becomes more important to the industry. If New Zealand takes the sensible route of placing greater restrictions on the extensive advertising and promotion of alcohol (approximately $320,000 per day currently) we might expect to see product placement becoming a more important part of the alcohol industries arsenal. Cinema and TV provide a great source of entertainment and have an important role to play is exploring and reflecting our society, but we do need to be vigilant as consumers of that entertainment that we are not being “programmed by the programmes”.

Dr Simon Adamson is a clinical psychologist specializing in alcohol, other drugs and behavioral addictions. You can learn more about him and his work at


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