A Brief History of the Binge Drinking PSA

Since the post-WWII years, binge drinking PSAs have focused on the destruction of gender norms, not health issues, as a dominant risk factor. Shockingly, more than 50 years later, very little has changed. Rachel Barth on why the PSA is stuck on rewind.

It is 1960. You’re out on the town. You’re pretty, well coiffed. You have a cocktail in a crystal martini glass. You’re the life of the party. But then, something goes terribly awry. One drink felt good, so you have two, then five. Horror ensues. Want to light that cigarette? Good luck. Thought your date was going great? Nope. The only way this night’s going to end is with a handsome lad leading you swaying all the way home, shaking his head. You wake up alone, confused, hungover. And it gets worse. Sure, you failed last night, but keep this up, and you’ll fail at life—shackled to a bed, ripping at the chains, pleading for freedom. You drank yourself into a mental institution. If only you had acted like a lady…

It reads extreme, but that’s the message and plot of an actual anti-binge drinking Public Service Announcement (PSA) from the 1960s detailing proper feminine behavior. The video was, wildly enough, designed to show to women in the military. Today, it provides a good laugh—a woman drinks too much, becomes unappealing to men and must be destroyed—but through a wider lens, it’s a bit unnerving.

The anti-binge drinking PSAs that target women have since evolved (from “drink too much and you’ll hurt yourself” to “drink too much and someone else will hurt you”), but one theme remains: A woman’s femininity and manners are a direct reflection of her worth to society. The message is clear: “Behave yourself, ladies. You don’t want that reputation.”

The female expression of a traditionally male problem was understandably complex in the historical context of the 1960s, but today, the emphasis on norms is just dated. How is harm to gender, not health, still portrayed as the greatest risk? How did these PSAs get stuck in rewind?

Lessons in Lady

In the 1940s and 1950s war and post-war times, production houses created persuasive etiquette PSAs to reinforce and profit from the government ideals of gender. Women were shown how to throw dinner parties, socially engage, wear makeup. Men were shown how to maintain discipline, ask women on dates, control their emotions. The videos were shown in schools, workplaces, and to the military, encouraging non-threatening conformity in a changing social landscape.

For example, “Easy Does it, Ladies,” an informational video from the Jam Handy Organization (which produced the first animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939, as well as thousands of educational videos during World War II) about women using machinery in the 1940s says, “What is that ripcord resilience, that lets the weaker sex play half the night, then bob up clear-eyed ready for the next morning work?” Why, machines, of course. The video encourages women to work, but keeps them tethered to a perceived femininity to level the threat against social order.

In the 1962 Saturday Evening Post article “The Housewife’s Secret Sickness,” writer Don Murray describes the female alcoholic as a social pariah. Murray writes: “People think of the woman drunk as an old hag, a blowzy creature who would never live in a nice neighborhood. They won’t admit alcoholism is a disease…As her thirst begins to rule her life, a woman runs head on into a double standard. Among men, heavy drinking is often taken as a sign of virility, and the phrase, ‘Drunk as a lord,’ is a tribute. No one ever said approvingly, ‘She was drunk as a lady.’”

Professor of Marketing at the University of Washington, Nidhi Agrawal says that women tend to be more sensitive to cultural embarrassment, and these message-ads exploit that vulnerability. The irony comes, however, in that women across the ages have been objectified to sell alcohol, but in PSAs, are inversely de-objectified for using it.

“We have ads that negate a feminine image [for binge drinking], but that don’t make it unattractive for a man to binge drink,” she said. “Alcohol [has] always [been] sold with: If I am sitting with a drink, it’s going to make me really attractive to the woman in theory. That’s like the basic modus operandi of a vodka commercial. We don’t do that in reverse. It’s not: If I binge drink, I make myself unattractive to that same woman.”

Male PSA subjects might get a slap on the wrist and a lesson for their error in drinking judgment, but their masculinity comes out intact, and they thus obtain the chance at redemption. In the 1970s PSA against drunk driving, a male driver, Mac, crashes his car. Afterwards, he complains that the cops will bust him for drinking, but explains he ate dinner with his drinks and is really fine. “Sure, Mac, sure,” the narrator playfully ribs. Mac gets teased, gets a warning, but doesn’t self-destruct the way the woman from the 1960s PSA does, and for a lesser crime. She has committed what appears to be a bigger offense: stepping out of gender line.

Wildly, social stigma and feminine worth—rather than potential health risks—persisted as the dominant dissuasive tool for women into the ‘80s and ‘90s (albeit with a bit more neon), while guys continued to find relief, because, “Hey, all you need is you.” And what looked silly in the ‘90s became downright buffoonish at the turn of the century. Instead of adapting to the times, citing health risks or solutions, the millennial ads have gone even further in reverse.

So a Girl Walks into a Bar

Women today no longer internalize the potential societal disgrace of drinking the way previous generations had. But instead, the PSAs externalize it for them: They insinuate physical abuse, paint drunk girls as clowns or make them look physically like men. It’s a profound shift from women feeling shame to women being shamed.

In the 2008 print ad from the London Drug and Alcohol Service, a masculine woman wearing bright and messy makeup pairs with the text, “If you drink like a man you might end up looking like one.”

In a 2012 PSA funded by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, a girl wakes up to text messages of embarrassing photos from the previous night. As she sees them, she experiences humiliating flashbacks—blue eye shadow and red lipstick smeared across her face. The last text she receives says, “I think you need to see this.” Then former NBA star Dr. Shaquille O’Neal (logically) appears with a warning. “You think you can, and you could. You think you didn’t, but yes you did!” He waves his finger. “You think you won’t and you wouldn’t. Four drinks ago. It takes less than you think.”

The ad is part of an anti-binge campaign called “LessThanUThink,” a student initiative that originated at the University of Alabama. The campaign regaled the use of Shaq—a spokesman for The Century Council, which helped fund the project—on their homepage, “You may not want to tell your friends that they’ve had just a little too much to drink, so let Shaq do it. Forward the PSA to them. After all, who would dare not listen to Shaq!”

When health, rather than shame, is finally addressed in PSAs as a risk factor, it wrongly takes the shape of abuse.

Alcohol Abuse

“I’m from India, and there’s a lot of debate about sex crimes there,” said Agrawal. “The idea is that boys are just going to be boys, and women [should] just look less attractive. It’s a similar idea [with the anti-binge drinking ads]: You were drunk; it’s not my fault.” 

A 2008 Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board print ad was pulled after urging women not to drink heavily, to avoid date rape. An image of a girl’s ankles, as she’s sprawled across the floor, panties at her feet, is paired with the slogan: “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.”

A print ad still out today from the National Health Service and Home Office, a department of British government, shows a woman crying on the floor with the message, “One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking.” But a petition is circulating on change.org to destroy all copies of the current ad, and change the message to read, “If you have been sexually assaulted, remember that it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, where you were or whether you had been drinking.”

Still, even though over 50 years have passed, the gender value association with drinking remains largely unchanged. It’s a terribly dated voice—one largely communicated by government organizations through ad agencies, and cited by these organizations as showing positive results. However, the resistance and refusal of these ads from the general population suggests otherwise.

Of course drinking raises risky behaviors, but moderation and monitoring drinking should be the message, not humiliation.

Rachel Barth is a writer and filmmaker from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared on CNN, VICE News, Draft Magazine, Drink Me and more. She's a graduate from UC Berkeley's Mass Communications and Creative Writing programs, and a former fellow with the International Center for Journalists. When she's not busy being professional, she can be found in dark basements performing stand up comedy, being very unprofessional.