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Pubs, clubs, pre-drinks, festivals, schoolies…the social life of young adults in Australia revolves around alcohol. Drinking (often to excess) is an engrained social norm and important rite of passage. Yet, despite the acceptance of this culture of heavy drinking among young adults, the negative impacts (from coward punches to accidental deaths and serious injury) are heavy.

In response to this, DrinkWise, an alcohol industry body set a bold and strategic focus on shifting attitudes and behaviours around excessive drinking amongst this key 18 - 24 year old audience. The ‘big idea’ was to take a new approach; explore attitudes and behaviours to create insight driven messages powerful enough to drive genuine social and behavioural change.

In partnership with Clemenger BBDO, the team at GALKAL undertook an 18 month research journey delving deep into the social dynamics, drivers, motivations and key trigger points to binge drinking; uncovering insights and refining messaging territories to drive an effective campaign that actually speaks their language.

The context and the challenge: Tackling an ingrained culture of binge drinking

At a cultural level, it’s widely acknowledged within Australia (and outside of it for that matter), that Aussies are big drinkers. The act of drinking with peers is woven into the cultural fabric of our identity; we celebrate battlers, we praise the underdog and we treat the pub beer garden as a place of reverence to reward, as VB so memorably phrased it, “a hard earned thirst”. This inherent cultural norm of drinking is no more evident than in the accolade of our own former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who proudly held the world record for downing a yard of ale whilst still in office.

With a cultural history of celebrating drinking, it’s almost unsurprising that the average age of those aged 14-24 trying alcohol for the first time is 15.7 years (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW] 2014) and although that number is slowly increasing, it is still far below the legal age limit of 18. However, regardless of the fact that as a society we begin consuming alcohol from an early age, turning 18 and being able to legally consume alcohol remains an important, sacred rite of passage – arguably more so than being able to vote or learning to drive. When it comes to the important alcohol initiation process, we celebrate it, we ritualise it and we glorify it. Rather ironically, drinking or getting “smashed”, “wasted” or “shitfaced” has become a unified symbol of blossoming maturity.  

In addition to being a beacon of progression and the birth of adulthood, drinking to excess is relied on to cultivate and manage an ideal ‘brand me’; being seen to help regulate behaviour, deliver the confidence to project an aspirational identity and enable a platform for group or ‘tribe’ cohesion and belonging. However for young adults today, the role of alcohol isn’t just limited to “the real world”, but transcends to the online sphere manifesting as a drive to share, post and update drinking preferences, behaviour and environments to garner social capitol and hone, refine and project their ideal ‘brand me’ within the online community.

The consequences of such a socio-culturally engrained drive to drink is dire, with almost 5 million Australians aged 14 or older having been a victim of an alcohol related incident in 2013 (AIHW, 2014). While this number is concerning, we all inherently know the risks of binge drinking and through recent phenomena such as ‘neknominate’, dialogue around coward punches and the introduction of lock out laws, young adults engaging in hard and heavy drinking is increasingly on the public and social health agenda.

As a response, DrinkWise, an alcohol Industry body, set a bold and strategic focus seeking to create an effective campaign that leverages insight driven messages to drive genuine social, behavioural and attitudinal change when it comes to young adult binge drinking.

To meet this challenging objective two broad research questions needed to be answered. Firstly we needed to understand how drinking decisions are influenced on a social, personal and environmental level, and secondly, we needed to identify the core emotional triggers that could be employed in communications strategies to change the drinking behaviour of those within the 18 to 24 year old age bracket. Within this then sat a number of gritty questions, such as:

  • What’s the journey of a night out?
  • Who (or what) are the points of influence?
  • What are the influences of anti-social behaviour?
  • What are the triggers toward irresponsible decision making?
  • Where and how can irresponsible decision making be influenced?
  • What are the phases of changing behaviour?
  • What messages resonate most strongly how should they be optimised?
  • How overt should DrinkWise’s presence be in any communications?

Essentially we were handed the challenge of uncovering what’s driving young adult binge drinking, and how to disrupt it.

The method: How to get into their world and drive real change

From the beginning, we recognised that there would be some fairly hefty social, behavioural, environmental and psychological barriers to overcome and address when designing a methodology that enabled us to capture genuinely meaningful insight. As a result, it was clear that traditional qualitative methods were unlikely to provide the strongest, most revealing insights about what drinking is like for young people today.

The first barrier was ensuring that we were able to uncover real attitudes and behaviours to fully understand the drivers and influencers of binge drinking. With drinking in itself such an ingrained cultural norm and the practice by definition influencing our thinking and decision making in ways we can’t pin point, we were up against some real challenges identifying what this audience really thinks and does in the moment. For example, how could we get to the heart of drinking behaviours with sober respondents, how do we avoid peer influence and how could we overcome the memory and social biases to identify what people actually do and think versus what they say they do and think? 

Then when it came to affecting real change in the moment, we knew we had a whole new set of hurdles to overcome. Firstly the challenge of the life stage we were dealing with; a transitional group hungry for liberation, independence and at the same time also belonging and acceptance. The second hurdle here was uncovering and identifying messages that could transcend environment and mental state, messages that would feel as pertinent and impactful in a pub or club as at home in front of the computer. The third and broadest challenge was the need to cut through and redesign social norms and drinking rituals as we were not only looking to influence individual behaviour but trigger broader social and cultural change.

Ultimately, when it came to designing a methodology, we were left to identify how best to uncover ways of challenging socially and culturally engrained behaviour with a demographic sub-set who feel it’s an important rite of passage, are driven by deep sub-conscious emotional and social motivations, can’t predict their behaviour and are likely to be refractory to being told they can’t or shouldn’t do something.

In outlining these core research challenges, we identified that truly driving meaningful change would require us to adopt a multi-lens approach. Firstly, we had to explore the topic through a social lens, diving deep into peer networks, relationships and their influences to unlock the social dynamics at play. We then needed to examine the topic through an individual, personal lens to explore rational and emotional motivations and intrinsic behaviour that influence the decision making process. And lastly, we recognised the importance of examining drinking behaviour and motivations from a broader contextual and environmental perspective, observing non-verbal or rationalised behaviour and taking into consideration occasion based and environmental factors.

As a result, understanding true behaviour required a triangulated methodology, to ensure that we were able to capture, explore and understand behaviour through multiple lenses, taking into account internal as well as external influences. This triangulated methodology manifested as the use of a range of qualitative approaches; ethnography, in-depth interviews, friendship triads and focus groups.  Ethnographic observation enabled us to truly understand what is happening in the moment, identify core environmental drivers and begin to identify potential messaging territories. The friendship triads allowed us to uncover social dynamics and influences as well as understanding the power of the messaging platforms to shift tribe behaviour and provide a mnemonic to call others out. Lastly, we conducted in-depth interviews and focus groups to explore the topic and messaging territories from individual perspectives with varying degrees of anonymity.  

We kicked off the study with ethnography; spending time with groups of young people on nights out. We talked to them during the pre-drinks stage about what drinking is about, what stages the night goes through, what the ultimate ‘goal’ is and what negative outcomes too much drinking can cause. We asked them to put together videos that explained (in their words) what their hopes and expectations were for the night out, they sent us texts to update us on progress throughout the evening (and early morning). The following week we met up again with these individuals to involve them in the territory evaluation and development process, turning their own observations and experiences into actionable campaign territories.

This became a hugely powerful way to bring to life the realities of drinking for this audience. We were able to identify the difference between intentions and reality and highlight the social dynamics and ‘danger zones’ during a night out; ultimately helping to gain crucial foundational insights that steered the strategic direction of the campaign, feeding into concept development.

Following the creation of concept territories, we tested and refined work using a range of approaches –friendship triads, non-friendship groups, and individual Advertising Evaluation Depths (AEDs) a combination of methodologies crucial in examining the personal, social and broader context in which the materials would be viewed.

In total, the study into youth binge drinking and the corresponding creative refinement was an 18 month research program, divided into the following phases:

  • Qualitative exploration
    • 8 friendship triads amongst 18 – 24 year old evenly divided between males and females across Melbourne and Sydney
    • Objectives:
      • Understand the core emotional trigger/(s) that can be employed in communications to change binge drinking behaviour in 18 – 24 year olds
      • Identify how drinking decisions are influenced by people’s frame of mind, the people they inherently are and their environment by exploring and deconstructing the journey of a night out whilst identifying key influencers, trigger points and phases of behaviour
  • Territory exploration and campaign evaluation
    • 4 friendship triads amongst 18 – 24 year olds evenly divided between males and females across Melbourne and Sydney
    • Objectives
      • Identify the most powerful messaging platform to reframe moderation by playing to the social behaviours of 18-24 year olds as identified by round one
  • Campaign evaluation
    •  6 friendship triads amongst 18 – 24 year olds evenly divided between males and females across Melbourne and Sydney
    • Objectives:
      • Narrowed the focus onto evaluating the ‘Drink Properly’ campaign idea in more detail including message, relevance, differentiation, likelihood of impacting on behaviour as well as providing actionable feedback to creative around character, style, content and executional materials.
  • Campaign refinement
    • 8 groups, 4 triads and 4 in-depth interviews amongst 18 – 24 year olds evenly divided between males and females across Melbourne and Sydney
    • Objective:
      • To qualitatively evaluate the developed ‘How to Drink Properly’ campaign to assess appeal, impact and overall takeout prior to launch
      • To provide clear evidence from target audiences to support the decision to launch as well as provide clear and robust recommendations to inform the final stage of development

The findings: it’s all about empowerment

We found that the rise of technology has changed the world these individuals live in; opening up new avenues for self-expression, discovery and belonging but also equally enabling greater peer judgement, self-doubt and anxiety. We saw this manifest as a constant need to curate, cultivate and project an aspirational ‘brand me’ across all platforms both online and ‘IRL’ (in real life). On nights out drinking, this emerged as a hunger to ‘keep up’ and an intrinsic drive to belong and impress… all of which was seen to rely heavily on a steadily flowing stream of (usually hard) booze.

The early ethnographic phase was crucial in enabling us to uncover key contextual and foundational learnings. Through this process we identified that the young adult audience doesn’t count drinks, rather they measure ‘binge’ by behaviour and state of mind rather than consumption – an imprecise science that leads to hard and heavy consumption behaviours. Therefore talking solely to the official definition of binge drinking can quickly feel intangible and irrelevant to the audience, they do not take the definition seriously but rather characterise it in reference to their own consumption, and behaviour of themselves or friends.

At this phase we were also able to identify a number of key trigger points of binge behaviour. Due to the power and influence of tribe unity and group cohesion on behaviour, we can easily appropriate Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing, mourning/adjourning) to identify and structure the key triggers to binge behaviour throughout the journey of a night out.

During the ‘forming’ stage we see that pre-drinks have an integral role to play in the drinking ritual.

They help to establish mood and atmosphere, drive sense of anticipation and tribe cohesion, set the pace and ultimately dictate the group agenda for the evening. However, with more than 4 standard drinks regularly consumed in this phase of the evening, this hallowed ritual is a major challenge to reframing binge behaviour amongst the target audience and can often set them up for messiness later in the night.

During the ‘storming’ phase we see that many begin to relinquish control to the dominant forces within the group, often leading to accidental or irreverent binge behaviour. It is at this time that a group leader emerges, often fuelling negative drinking behaviours and inciting a pace of consumption that is likely to impact the trajectory of the night. The ‘norming’ phase follows quickly after this, bringing with it an urgency and need to stay ‘in the round’ and keep pace to win over the approval and respect of peers. This often manifests as ‘outsourcing’ consumption decisions, with many adopting an “I’ll have what you’re having” mentality. This is particularly the case within groups of young males who fear that skipping a round, slowing down or reaching for water is a sign of weakness.

During the ‘performing’ stage we witness the desire to maintain the ‘buzz’, an improbable balancing act that sees the drinker try to walk the fine line between tipsiness and complete intoxication. Described by one respondent as seeking to hit the “magic 8” whereby 1 is “too sober”, 10 is “too drunk”, this space is seen as the sweet spot, promising a fine balance of inhibition and control. However, like a mirage, hitting the magic 8 is elusive and an imprecise science that often ends in messiness and binge behaviour.

Interestingly, at this stage we see a clear environmental discrepancy begin to play out. During on premise occasions, this performance stage often comes with some moments of self-reflection driven by a need to maintain enough decorum to continue accessing venues and ordering drinks. It is here that our young adults also begin to self-regulate social interaction in an attempt to avoid being “that person”; wary of slurred speech, poor posture, stumbling and fearing the dreaded catch cry ‘TAXI!’ that accompanies a fall or dropped glass indicating loss of control and with it, social capitol. These social fears however are less top of mind when off premise (i.e. house party), whereby lazy, unchecked pouring and the false sense of comfort and safety that comes with being in a home often culminates as a recipe for disaster.

Lastly, when it comes to the ‘mourning’ phase, we see that as a side effect of ‘FOMO’ and drive for peer acceptance and belonging, making it to the end of the night and being one of the last (wo)men standing is a coveted position, promising strengthened connections and a social cache. However with long nights comes the need to “maintain the buzz” and hard and heavy consumption is usually the outcome.

To add an additional layer of difficulty, we identified that young people are becoming bored and de-sensitised to ‘doom and gloom’ advertising. While they know the physical risks associated with negative health habits such as binge drinking, they feel invincible and are confident that “it’ll never happen to me”. Particularly when placed in the context of drugs, speeding and other reckless behaviour, getting drunk feels comparatively ‘safe’. However, this demographic does recognise that drinking can be a risk to their social wellbeing, resulting in shame, regret and social isolation; a relevant, impactful and motivating fear given the peer centric nature of the age range. 

In fact, fear of social retribution was so pervasive that throughout the ethnographic phase of research we identified an interesting ‘morning after’ ritual engaged in by this audience. After particularly heavy nights of drinking, these young adults would commence what is best described as a process of ‘social damage control’, reflecting on behaviour and conversations, trawling social media and carefully sifting through text messages to ensure they hadn’t done any lasting damage to their social reputation and ‘brand me’. This learning really highlighted that a far more relevant and compelling lever to pull through communications is one embedded in the risk of social damage rather than physical harm.

It was also identified that when it comes to binge behaviour and “going too far”, this audience doesn’t know how to empower change for themselves or others. A key finding here was that many were unaware they were reaching (let along passing) the tipping point before it was too late and their peers were too fearful to point out the signs or reinforce positive changes in behaviour for fear of social retribution, judgement, being seen as condescending or just ‘making matters worse’.

It became clear that young adults didn’t feel they had a dominant social narrative or collective ‘truth’ to rely on when it comes to shifting behaviour and that what they needed most was a situational lever to instil the confidence to call out behaviour and help drive change. As a result, we identified the need to find a narrative that could come to life as a mnemonic, normalising a topic that was difficult to talk about or that they didn’t feel they had the language for and at the same time have the ability to trigger self-reflection. The most powerful example of this kind of narrative in social health messaging to date (from the perspective of these young adults) was the ‘pinkie’ ad for speeding; we just needed to find something equally as compelling and engaging for drinking.

The crux of our learnings and recommendations were thus anchored in the idea of empowerment. Our findings indicated that to solve this conundrum and address all underlying dynamics required a campaign that was not authoritarian or fatalistic, but in fact presented moderation as a socially desirable attribute by talking to what young adults fear most – not risks to their life, but to their social identity.

Clemenger BBDO responded to these learnings by crafting a messaging territory anchored in reframing moderation as aspirational. The How to Drink Properly territory, which was seen to empower young adults to take control and drink smart (not hard) to preserve their identity.

The territory worked well to shift away from the traditional narrative around fear and danger which plays off shock factors, is anchored in physical repercussions and has an aggressive, authoritarian tone ultimately laddering into a stern ultimatum – stop drinking. Instead, How To Drink Properly aligned with new, emerging narratives anchored in empowerment and success, highlighting more relatable scenarios, talking to the aversion of social risk and making positive behaviours feel aspirational.

Most importantly, this territory seemed to genuinely work with the target audience. It spoke to their desire to cultivate their ‘brand me’, driving relevance by playing on themes of control and reputation and inspiring better behaviours by challenging and encouraging them to adopt more sophisticated and mature drinking behaviours. Furthermore, it felt like a new, differentiated message by saying ‘do it better’ rather than ‘don’t do it at all’ all wrapped up in a creatively styled animatic that used the demographics’ own vernacular – young adults don’t “binge”, the get “shitfaced”, “wasted” or “smashed”.

In addition to the tone and language of the campaign, our research identified that the suave character was central to the success and appeal of the campaign. His balance of sophistication and cutting wit drove engagement across both men and women alike and his demeanour clearly helped to exalt the benefits of less, highlight the immaturity of excess and begin to empower audiences to regain control and ‘class’.

This combination of factors meant that the campaign not only was seen as engaging and relevant to the audience, but also provided them with a situational lever, empowering them with the confidence to call out negative behaviours and drive change within their own tribes. Statements like ‘do it properly’, ‘stay classy’ and the videos themselves became a mnemonic, helping to normalise a topic many find hard to broach, giving young adults the language to call out mates and reframe moderation within peer groups. By having the power to call others out and talking to moderation as something ‘sophisticated’ it also worked to make the audience more reflective, aware and willing to change their own behaviour, meaning not only did the territory have the potential to empower the audience to call out others, it even managed to trigger self-reflection.

The impact: Controversial, but a success!

The launch of a PSA campaign that was stylish, littered with obscenities and broadcasted a new, more liberal, less authoritarian message wasn’t without controversy. Social commentators were greatly divided on the campaign; youth hub ‘Pedestrian TV’ called the campaign a “brilliant PSA that tells Aussies not to get shit-faced in terms they can understand” (Ash 2014)praising the campaign’s underlying message of self-reflection and behavioural ownership as well as its refreshing tone. However, others were less positive and feared the approach would backfire; a perfect example of which was the article published by The Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘Expert condemns ‘appalling’ DrinkWise Campaign’ (Hoh & Levy, 2014) in which a Public Health Advocate called for an immediate withdrawal of campaign materials.  

Those more concerned with the approach feared that the “drink properly” message would be taken as an invitation to drink more, rather than more moderately. They questioned the role of the suave, James Bond like character arguing that his presence would have the potential to make drinking itself look ‘cool and sophisticated’ and believed using language such as ‘amateur’ and ‘rookie’ would suggest that when it comes to drinking, practice (and lots of it), makes perfect. In essence, these individuals feared that the message of moderation would in fact be lost in the style, tone and language of the campaign and that it would instead encourage the very behaviour DrinkWise was looking to negate.

However despite these concerns, since launch, the campaign’s success has reinforced the qualitative findings, as the impact of the campaign on its desired target audience emerged as highly successful. In fact during the campaign period, the executions tracked an engagement rate of 14.68%, which is 500% above the alcohol industry average of 2.18% (Quantum Market Research [QMR] 2014)

However, it wasn’t just that the campaign was entertaining and engaging, it was genuinely shifting attitudes; 81% state that they are now thinking about the effects of moderation, 77% identified that it made them more aware of the perception of others when drinking and 74% state that they were more aware of how they drink as a result (QMR 2014). This attitudinal shift is also beginning to translate into behavioural change, with 33% reporting to be drinking less on a night out after seeing the campaign (QMR).

The ‘shareability’ of the campaign also provided a tool for these young adults to start a dialogue with their own peers, which was a key project success factor and imperative to genuinely driving socio-cultural change within a Gen Y demographic. Within this metric, the campaign had 55,000 social media interactions which more than 10 times greater than Public Service Announcement benchmarks (Clemenger BBDO 2014), with 54% indicating that the campaign gave them ‘a platform to talk to their friends about drinking’ and 18% of those who had seen the campaign having shared it with others (QMR 2014).


Ash 2014, ‘Brilliant PSA tells young Aussies to not get shitfaced in terms they understand’, PedestrianTV, viewed February 2015,

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2013.Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat. no. PHE 183. Canberra: AIHW.

Clemenger BBDO 2014, ‘How to drink properly, social media statistics’, viewed February 2015,

Hoh & Levy 2014, ‘Expert Condemns ‘appauling’ DrinkWise Campaign, The Sydney Morning Herald, viewed February 2015,

Quantum Market Research 2014, Post Evaluation Study

Quantum Market Research 2014, Key Findings: How to drink properly Campaign, viewed February 2015,


DrinkWise Australia Media Release

DrinkWise Australia’s How to Drink Properly was named as the Best Marketing Innovation at the BRW Most Innovative Companies Awards on Monday night. The campaign started strongly with over 2 million views in its first weeks after launch and has continued to grow since then.


How to Drink Properly Campaign Wins Two Effectiveness Awards

DrinkWise Australia’s How to Drink Properly campaign won two Effies at last night’s gala award ceremony in Sydney. The campaign was joint- winner in the ‘Not-For-Profit / Cause Related Marketing’ category with a silver award and a received a bronze for ‘Most Original Thinking’.