Drinking Games: Guyon Espiner on alcohol and identity

12:46 pm on 15 November 2021

First person - Guyon Espiner can still remember the Steinlager ad campaigns of his youth, and years on, it remains impossible to escape alcohol marketing.

By the age of 15 I'd hit most of the milestones for a teenage boy in mid-1980s New Zealand: I'd passed School Cert, I had my driver's licence and I understood that how much alcohol I drank was a good measure of my worth.

The things you experience as a teenager are burned into your memory.

Watching David Lange spar with Rob Muldoon sparked a lifelong interest in politics. It was a time of revolution, economically and socially.

New Zealand showed its independence on the world stage by going nuclear free. One of the top local hits of 1985 was Nuclear Waste by the band Herbs, a protest song against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. The French secret service bombed the Greenpeace flagship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour that same year.

It was around that time that me and my mates in Christchurch started going to the pub.

This was still largely 'fortress New Zealand' - although Rogernomics was about to open up the economy and change all that - so imports were rare and expensive and the only real beer options were Lion or DB Draught.

"I'll have a dozen DB drought," I recall a friend saying, as he waved his hand unconvincingly at the cans behind the counter. "What are the magic words," the manager asked. "Um, please," my friend ventured. The manger shook his head at us underage drinkers and smiled. "You didn't buy it from here."

Heavy drinking was normal. It was celebrated. Our heroes did it.

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Guyon Espiner at a drinking session in his late teens Photo: Supplied

In 1986 Steinlager started sponsoring the All Blacks and in 1987 it launched an ad campaign featuring exotic locales with the tagline: "They're drinking our beers here".

I was proud. I cut out the magazine ads of beautiful people drinking Steinlager in the great cities of the world and stuck them on my bedroom wall. I can see them in my mind to this day. Advertising works.

Much of the world has moved on since then. New Zealand hasn't.

In 1991 France, which produces some of the most revered alcoholic drinks in the world, introduced Loi Evin, or Evin's Law, which heavily restricts alcohol advertising and bans it at cultural and sporting events.

The All Blacks had to cover up the Steinlager logo on their shirts when they played in France in 1994.

The French were laggards compared to Norway, which banned all alcohol advertising in 1975.

Even Ireland, home of fine whiskey and Guinness, is now heavily restricting alcohol advertising, banning it within 200 metres of a school or playground and partitioning off the booze section in the supermarket. A ban on alcohol advertising in sports arenas came into force this month.

In New Zealand booze still gets a free run to align itself with our treasured national games, pouring about $20 million a year into sports sponsorship.

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Sir Graham Lowe and Guyon Espiner in Proof, which is released tonight Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

In 2014 an expert panel, chaired by former Kiwi rugby league coach Sir Graham Lowe, recommended a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport but that was quietly shelved by the National government of the day.

In the documentary Proof, which screens on RNZ's digital platforms and on TVNZ 1 today at 9.30pm, Lowe talks about his moment of truth as he realised his own young children knew which beer brands sponsored their sporting heroes.

It seems disingenuous for the current leadership of our major sports codes to express shock and disappointment when their players get into trouble on the booze, while their teams take millions of dollars in exchange for promoting products that regularly cause this harm.

But sport is just one of many happy hunting grounds for the liquor industry.

Alcohol marketing is everywhere in Aotearoa. Try it yourself as an experiment. How far through your day can you get without being urged to drink?

When we sat down at a window seat at RNZ's central Auckland office to discuss making this documentary, a digital Jack Daniel's sign lit up on the wall outside.

As I researched the documentary online the algorithm obliged with web ads for cut price booze. My Uber account reminded me I could have alcohol delivered from 10am to 10.30pm. Facebook, Instagram, newspapers, billboards, bottle stores, TV ads - it's hard to escape it.

The government's 2018 inquiry into mental health said alcohol was a factor in about half of all youth suicides. Yet you'll find beer brands sponsoring mental health campaigns and suicide awareness programmes.

Alcohol is a known risk factor for breast cancer, yet breast cancer charities take sponsorship from wines and spirits companies.

When Parliament hosted an event for Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month in 2019, the theme was Whisky vs Gin, described on Facebook as a "fantastic event, where two of our favourite spirits go head-to-head with delicious whiskies and gins on offer through the night".

I stopped drinking entirely in 2019. I'd drunk heavily since the age of 15. I'd grown up in a culture where alcohol was associated with almost every occasion. That culture may be changing - young people are drinking less now - but it's still all around us.

Steinlager still sponsors the All Blacks - 35 years after they first began.

In a recent ad campaign the beer brand celebrates "New Zealand's finest" - iconic achievements including cleaning up dirty rivers and singing the national anthem in te reo Māori.

One of the ads took me back to the mid-1980s when I was a teenager and New Zealand went nuclear free.

Steinlager had done this before, starring Willem Dafoe in a 2008 ad celebrating plucky New Zealand standing up to America's nuclear might.

The 2020 ad is based on the 1995 flotilla protesting French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

In the commercial, a group of No 8 wire heroes set sail for a David and Goliath battle with the French military, to the strains of the Fleetwood Mac song Go Your Own Way.

Somehow drinking Steinlager - made by Lion, which is owned by the Japanese beverage giant Kirin - is an act of high sovereignty akin to New Zealand going nuclear free.

It's a beautiful ad and I agree with the sentiment, at least the one expressed in the song. It's an idea at the heart of the Proof documentary: Go your own way.

Proof is released tonight at 9.30pm on the RNZ website, Facebook, YouTube and TVNZ 1.