Growing popularity of the alcohol-free way of life and increasing sober curiosity of people around the world and especailly in Western cultures is leading to a rise of sober-curious TV.
Alcohol normalization and glamorization on television is one of the major marketing strategies used by transnational alcohol companies. But this is increasingly at odds with the values and interests of people, especially younger generations. In recent years, many TV shows are being created and aired that depict the harmful consequences of alcohol. For instance, addiction and subsequent recovery of the main characters has become a theme. In contrast to the glamourization and normalization seen on TV for years the rise in this new sober-curious TV portrays honestly what alcohol can do to a person and their environment and the challenges people face in their recovery and sobriety journeys.
Several TV shows that used to glamorize and normalize alcohol use have also attempted to depict the harms of alcohol in terms of addiction, albeit not very effectively.
While TV shows are still a far cry from truly depicting the alcohol-free way of life which is the lifestyle enjoyed by the majority of people in the world, showing the harms alcohol can cause is a starting point to changing Television’s addiction to portraying alcohol in the way Big Alcohol wants it to.
However, while sober-curious TV is trending, the majority of reality TV shows and content on Netflix and other video-on-demand platforms is still proliferating harmful alcohol norms.
Alcohol glamorization on television
For long years television has glamorized and normalized alcohol use. This has happened in TV series and reality TV. Often characters are seen using alcohol in the shows in contexts that reinforce alcohol norms, such as using alcohol at celebrations, using alcohol to relax or cope with work stress, using alcohol to have fun, on vacation, to socialize, etc.
One example is the popular American show “Sex and the City” which aired from 1998 to 2004. The story follows the lives of four women who are friends living in New York City. The show depicts how they traverse through work, relationships, and their friendship with each other.
The women are depicted as being glamorous, wearing expensive branded clothes, having successful work lives, and using alcohol a lot of the time, from wine after long days of work to alcohol intoxication after breakups and having cocktails when socializing in bars and restaurants.
Subtly unbeknownst to viewers the show even aligned feminism, women’s freedom, and strong female role models with alcohol use, making the Cosmopolitan cocktail the female equivalent of James Bond’s Martinis.
A study analyzing UK TV shows in 2015 found shocking and unacceptable levels of prevalence of alcohol product placement on the most popular shows. Analysis of almost 3,000 minutes of national TV revealed that,
- Just one in 20 characters’ drinks were a glass of water, while more than a third were alcoholic beverages.
- Over two one-week periods, soap operas were found to dedicate 39% of “drinks screen time” to alcohol, with sitcoms giving 25%, dramas 34%, and The Archers radio show 44%.
Reality TV back in the day was also flooded with alcohol. For example, the show “Big Brother” which was running from the 2000s till 2010 depicted (and encouraged) heavy alcohol use by the contestants. As Big Brother contestant Nick Bateman, who was part of the show in 2000 says, contestants were allowed to bring two bottles of alcohol each on the show. They finished all the alcohol they brought on the first night itself. This was a harmful depiction of binge alcohol use.
TV shows have evolved from depicting alcohol as a magic, glamorous elixir to conveying the harms caused by alcohol.”Tharaka Ranchigoda
Producers used alcohol to make the show more “entertaining”, to ply the contestants, and as a reward for certain tasks. The participants even bickered about how much alcohol they would get. This showed a high-risk way of heavy alcohol use and possible alcohol use disorder of participants.
The rise in sober-curious TV: From glamourizing and normalizing to depicting consequences of alcohol use
At present many TV shows seem to be moving on from glamorizing and normalizing alcohol to depicting the consequences of alcohol use. This has led to the rise in sober-curious TV programing.
While television is still a far cry from honestly depicting the benefits of the alcohol-free way of life and sobriety as the real preference of the majority of people in the world, it is a step in the right direction that TV shows have evolved from depicting alcohol as a magic, glamorous elixir to conveying the harms caused by alcohol. So far this change is still limited to depicting addiction, alcohol problems, and recovery.
TV shows depicting female sobriety journeys
Some of the new TV programs showing the sobriety and recovery journey of main characters are “The Flight Attendant,” “The Dry” and “Single Drunk Female”.
All these shows have a few things in common: A female protagonist who is sober after hitting rock bottom with addiction. The stories follow their sober journeys without glossing over the difficult parts of recovery.
The Flight Attendant
For example, in the second season of “The Flight Attendant”, the protagonist Cassie has made it one year alcohol-free and established a new life in LA. In the first season, she was shown as having an addiction problem.
By the second season, she is on a sobriety journey. The show explores Cassie’s interior scrutiny resulting from her new sobriety and her sense of self which is split into the various people she has been. Meanwhile, Cassie has also become an asset to the CIA.
This honest depiction of sobriety is also embraced in “The Dry”. In this show, the 35-year-old female protagonist Shiv comes back home six months sober. She finds her self-destructive tendencies have not gone away and that she still has to work on them.
“The Dry” also deals with what society believes alcohol use disorder and addiction look like and what they actually are like in reality. People with an alcohol use problem may not always appear like they have problems. The show challenges the image of a person with an alcohol problem who is in poverty, maybe homeless, and generally unkempt, as in one episode the show depicts an AA meeting in the bougie suburbs with people who do not fit the stereotypical image of an “alcoholic”.
Single Drunk Female
“Single Drunk Female” is another recent show airing on Freeform, a branch of Disney+, that makes the alcohol-free way of life feel relatable. The show follows the female protagonist Sam who is in her twenties as she hits rock bottom after being intoxicated leading to the loss of her job, being arrested, and one-month court-mandated rehab. She has to move back in with her unsupportive mother and navigate her life and her new sobriety. Perhaps its relatability has to do with the fact that Sam’s sobriety journey is influenced by the real experience of the show’s creator Simone Finch around 2012.
There have been several other TV shows which have been able to capture the nuances of addiction such as “Euphoria,” “Shameless,” “Feel Good,” and “New Amsterdam.”
“Euphoria” deals with 17-year-old Rue’s struggle with narcotic drug addiction. It also shows how easy it is for teens to get hold of narcotic drugs and hide their problems.
“Shameless” follows the Gallagher family and has alcohol addiction in the background through the father’s addiction for several seasons without really exploring it. But when the family’s son Lip starts showing signs of addiction the show follows him throughout from his worst moments to his ultimate recovery.
“Feel Good” and “New Amsterdam” explore narcotic drug addiction but in different contexts. Feel Good explores how recovery can affect all aspects of a person’s life, including relationships. New Amsterdam is mainly a medical drama but follows the Adderall addiction of Dr. Lauren Bloom, who is the head of the ER. Here, viewers see how addiction affects work and even doctors. We get to follow her journey through rehab and her daily struggle with recovery in the face of being so close to her triggers on a daily basis.
TV shows that previously glamourized or normalized alcohol use are changing
Even TV shows that previously glamorized and/or normalized alcohol use such as “Sex and the City” and “Bojack Horseman” have started to depict the consequences of alcohol.
The New Sex and the City reboot on HBO Max called “And Just Like That” has attempted to depict addiction through Miranda’s character. She is seen as starting to increasingly rely on alcohol to deal with the pressures of life, beginning graduate school, and an unhappy marriage. While Charlotte starts to notice some warning signs, Carrie does not and dismisses it.
However, the show is far from denormalizing alcohol use since in one instance Carrie comments that “don’t we all drink too much” when Charlotte brings up Miranda’s alcohol problem. The problem is also depicted as limited to Miranda, despite everyone in the show being portrayed as consuming lots of alcohol. It seems to reinforce “responsible alcohol use” messages purported by the alcohol industry since Miranda is the only one with a problem even though all of the characters are still consuming and at times getting inebriated with alcohol. Furthermore, the way Charlotte quits alcohol “cold turkey” is unrealistic from how recovery looks like for many people.
The newer shows, such as “Single Drunk Female” or “The Dry” and “New Amsterdam” are more accurate portrayals of how alcohol problems can look like. It can be anyone, anywhere. These shows also depict sobriety and recovery more accurately with the stuggles that entail.
In “Bojack Horseman” after many years of normalizing alcohol use, and seeing Bojack sabotage himself and his relationships, eventually he decides to change himself. He goes in to rehab and starts doing the work. The show depicts the real challenges this decision entails for Bojack.
The rise of sober-curious TV relates to the growing sober curiosity in the world
This rise in sober-curious TV follows the wider trend in Western societies to denormalize alcohol use and instead normalize being alcohol-free, and enjoy the benefits of going sober.
Sober positivity is creating more inclusive societies.”Tharaka Ranchigoda
An increasing number of young people in the Western world are driving the new sober trend, however it is not only limited to the youth. They are creating a society and culture where alcohol use is denormalized and where being alcohol-free is normalized.
This sober positivity is creating more inclusive societies.
Young people choose alcohol-free for many reasons, such as:
- Being more health consious,
- To be more responsible and in control of their lives,
- To save money,
- To avoid being embarrassed by being caught on social media inebriated or even intoxicated, and
- Using digital media offers social alternatives to young people that are less likely to involve alcohol, such as video gaming and other digital activities.
The alcohol-free trend in the Western world has reached many different groups of people beyond the younger generations. For instance, one-third of British pub goers are staying sober, people going on dates are prioritizing alcohol-free and sober experiences, and more and more women are becoming aware of the harmful alcohol norms fed to them and seeking support.
Alcohol-free challenges, such as Dry January, have been helping people to reflect and question the role alcohol plays in their lives and explore life alcohol-free – for a month, a season, or other period of time. Many participants of these alcohol-free challenges experience the benefits and so they reduce alcohol use or go alcohol-free for life.
The Dry January challenge began in the United Kingdom (UK) and has now spread around the world also thanks to the support of Movendi International. Dry January is taking place in the United States (U.S.), Switzerland, France, Norway, and Iceland. This year, the Scandinavian countries have also joined for the first time, led by heart-driven Movendi International member organizations. Dry January has evolved beyond a challenge to a community of people who are questioning and changing pervasive alcohol norms within themselves and their communities.
The alcohol-free way of life has been taken up by popular celebrities and influencers who help to further normalize the trend in popular media. They also act like sober role models for young people and counteract the alcohol norms and glamorization shown on TV and other media.
One celebrity who went sober in 2021 is American actress Chrissy Teigan. She says the book “Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol” by author Holly Whittaker helped her to become sober.
American model Bella Hadid also embraced the alcohol-free life in 2021. Meanwhile, Singer Katy Perry launched her own non-alcohol lifestyle drink called “Golden Hour”.
Going alcohol-free is liberating, opening up more opportunities to connect, have fun and embrace who you are without the dulling down with alcohol.”Tharaka Ranchigoda
The importance of popular celebrities publicizing their alcohol-free way of life is that they celebrate their choice. They show the diversity of what it means to go alcohol-free and how much more options open up for people. It is not a limiting choice but a liberating one that opens up more opportunities to connect, have fun and embrace who you are without the dulling down with alcohol.
Someone with that much influence celebrating her sobriety instead of shaming herself about her [alcohol use] is a really big deal that’s going to have a massive impact,” said Holly Whittaker, author of Quit Like A Woman, about Chrissy Teigan’s decision to go alcohol-free, as per Good Morning America.Holly Whittaker, author of Quit Like A Woman
Changing environments – recovery support and alcohol-free drinks
Sober influencers such as Nathalie Stüben in Germany and Millie Gooch in the UK share their own sobriety journeys with people, help to break pervasive alcohol norms and normalize the alcohol-free life.
Nathalie Stüben has interviewed guests Rolf Hüllinghorst and Maik Dünnbier from the Movendi International movement in two of her interviews. Millie Gooch has published an opinion piece on the Movendi blog about sobriety and her book “The Sober Girl Society Handbook”.
The growth of sobriety and the alcohol-free way of life has also led to changing online sobriety support. These online groups offer an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for people who would like to try a different method for liberating their lives from alcohol. Most groups include FB groups or pages and other social media and podcasts which are often free and paid coaching and masterclasses for those who want it.
Women are especially reclaiming their power through these new online sobriety groups. This is positive since women are usually less likely to seek help for their alcohol use and do worse in conventional 12-step programs than their male counterparts.
The Western world’s increasing sober curiosity and sober positivity is even changing markets. The trend has led to the development of more no and low alcohol products as well as other alcohol-free businesses around the world.
Despite the rise in sober-curious TV, Netflix, other video-on-demand platforms and reality TV still perpetuate harmful alcohol norms
Despite popular TV shows turning towards depicting the consequences of alcohol use, such as addiction, and new TV programs addressing the nuances and honest challenges of sobriety for people in recovery, there are still many TV series inundated with alcohol. This is especially true of reality TV, Netflix and other video on demand platforms.
While some reality TV shows, such as “Love Island” have reduced the amount of alcohol given to contestants and even switched alcohol with non-alcoholic beverages, most of reality TV is still flooded with alcohol.
Horror stories of contestants not being allowed enough food and water but pumped with unlimited alcohol have surfaced from “Love is Blind” which is airing on Netflix since 2020. A class action suit was filed by one of the contestants alleging that the working conditions were “inhumane”.
One of the attorneys representing the lawsuit said reality TV has a bad reputation for exploiting its cast by pushing them to consume copious amounts of alcohol.
You see cast members constantly have an alcoholic beverage in their hands or within arm’s reach and they are shown using alcohol a lot more than eating, and there are instances of individuals being visibly [intoxicated],” said Chantal Payton of Payton Employment Law, PC, of Los Angeles, as per Business Insider.Chantal Payton, Payton Employment Law, PC, Los Angeles
A recent study published in the Journal of Public Health analyzed alcohol, tobacco, and products high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS) appearing on popular reality TV shows between 2019 – 2020 in English-speaking countries. TV Shows included Love Island, Made in Chelsea, and Married at First Sight Australia.
The study found that,
- Alcohol appeared in 5167 intervals or 38% across 258 or 98% of the episodes studied.
- Content featuring alcohol was the most pervasive on TV shows among the three studied types of content.
- The analyzed content had 3.5 billion alcohol gross impressions to the UK population including 12.6 million alcohol impressions on children.
The above study’s findings are consistent with previous studies that have analyzed alcohol content on reality TV shows, such as the “Geordie Shore” in the UK and “Bachelor in Paradise” in Australia, both of which has alcohol content in all episodes.
One study that analyzed alcohol, tobacco and high fat and sugar content on Netflix and Amazon Prime Original films in the UK found that this type of content appeared in almost half of the coded intervals. Alcohol content were depicted the most in 200 (41.7%) out of the total of 479 intervals coded.
Another study that analyzed alcohol and tobacco content on Netflix and Amazon Prime TV series found that alcohol content appeared in 363 (13%) intervals in 47 (94%) episodes analyzed. This appeared to be equally true of services regulated in the UK and The Netherlands.
TV shows in other parts of the world have also been perpetuating the alcohol norm, such as South Korean dramas or K-drama which have become increasingly popular across the Asian region.
In South Korea over-the-top (OTT) platforms and cable TV have increased the proliferation of alcohol on TV. Several popular shows on air, such as “Paik’s Spirit,” “Work Later, Drink Now,””Drinking Friends,” and “Local Table,” all feature alcohol use as the central theme.
The Korea Health Promotion Institute found that across 219 most-watched dramas and 438 popular reality shows aired in 2021 each episode had on average 2.3 scenes featuring alcohol.
Depictions of alcohol use on TV have been found to influence positive ideas about alcohol and increase alcohol cravings. In another survey by the Institute it was found that among 20 to 64 year old South Koreans 47% said they had an urge to consume alcohol after seeing alcohol use on TV.
Alcohol use in K-dramas is not just affecting the increase of alcohol use in South Korea but also in other countries in the region. For example, South Korean company Hite Jinro which is the world’s largest soju producer is using the appeal of Korean culture to increase the sale of soju in Japan. Soju is a South Korean liquor distilled from rice. It’s popularity has increased in Japan due to Korean films and TV shows extensively depicting the consumption of this product.
With the rising popularity of K-pop and K-drama soju has become almost synonymous with Korean culture through the extensive marketing of the product. This has influenced Japanese young people who embrace Korean pop culture to want to use soju.
Alcohol marketing is harmful
Product placement and alcohol use on TV shows is one type of alcohol marketing that proliferates across society. It is also one of the major strategies of the alcohol industry to normalize alcohol use. Movendi International has an extensive database of studies and other information revealing why exactly alcohol marketing is harmful.
The evidence as to how alcohol marketing is harmful is comprehensively explored by Maik Dünnbier in his opinion piece “Three Ways Alcohol Marketing Causes Harm and One Effective Solution”. Give it a read for more information. For now I will just add the key points from his article here.
Three ways that alcohol marketing causes harm are:
1. Alcohol marketing causes harm to children and youth.
- Early onset of alcohol use,
- higher amounts of alcohol consumption,
- more high-risk ways of consuming alcohol,
- shaping positive attitudes, expectancies, and judgements towards alcohol, and
- determining brand allegiance and loyalty for an entire life
these are the harmful effects of alcohol marketing on children, adolescents, and youth.
2. Alcohol marketing saturates society with alcohol, and perpetuates the harmful alcohol norm.
Alcohol marketing hijacks positive experiences to attach them to their products. It undermines self-esteem and replaces human capacity with consumption of alcohol products. Alcohol marketing misrepresents reality, excluding people from that reality, conditioning expectations about social environments and the role of alcohol in them. This is fueling and perpetuating a harmful alcohol norm that excludes people and harms people. Alcohol marketing also hijacks values and social issues to sell alcohol products. And alcohol marketing pushes the presence of alcohol into all aspects of human life.
3. Alcohol marketing prevents evidence-based alcohol industry regulation.
Big Alcohol invests in stakeholder marketing and corporate social responsibility campaigns to assist in maintaining a policy environment conducive to extensive alcohol marketing activity.
The most common regulatory response has been alcohol industry self-regulation; statutory public health responses have made little progress in recent years.
Alcohol marketing is harmful because it helps the alcohol industry to delay and avoid regulation that would threaten its profits. Weak alcohol regulatory systems provide economic opportunities for the alcohol industry to continue to maximize profits.
The one effective solution Maik discusses in his article and what is recommended by the World Health Organization is to ban alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion or have comprehensive regulations on alcohol marketing to minimize the harm it causes.
The rise of sober-curious TV is a positive trend. TV shows have for many decades glamourized and normalized alcohol use. However, at present TV shows are still limited to depicting alcohol addiction and recovery. Meanwhile, reality TV and video-on-demand platforms are still largely propagating alcohol use and promoting harmful alcohol norms.
The product placement, on-screen alcohol use and alcohol content are major strategies the alcohol industry is using to normalize alcohol use in society to drive higher sales and ultimately maximize profits. This strategy is causing harm to many, including children and other vulnerable communities. This is why it is important to implement alcohol policy solutions, such as a complete ban on alcohol marketing or comprehensive regulations as recommended by the World Health Organization.
Ultimately, while the denormalization and deglamorization of alcohol use and promoting sober positivity on TV is important, alcohol policy solutions are essential to better protect people from alcohol marketing of the industry.
The Guardian: “You booze you lose! The rise of sober-curious TV“
The Cut: “We Need to Talk About Miranda’s Drinking“
Explore: “Single Drunk Female“
The Korea Times: “Alcohol in TV shows: Why show so much booze?“