Alcohol doesn’t kill people. People kill people.

This article first appeared on upstart.net.au . It was (almost) used by The Age.

Richmond is no stranger to makeovers.

We’ve recently seen construction workers give Tigerland a nip-and-tuck and architects inject Botox into the adjacent Bubble Dome. Then there’s Brunton Avenue’s behemoth – whose name need not be mentioned – which can’t go five years without a routine touch-up.

Off the edge of Melbourne’s sporting precinct, though, lies another fickle structure.

The spinning sign.

Richmond station’s trademark billboard has – perhaps lamentably – become part of the city furniture. With its endless cycle of rotations, the heavy duty landmark hypnotises sport diehards and city commuters alike.

The sign’s aesthetic attraction, however, has less to with the medium and more to do with the message.

Indeed, a revolving advertising feature is of little interest. A revolving advertising feature that promotes sex, atheism and booze, on the other hand, is a marketer’s dream.

For a number of years, this was the esteemed centrepiece for what I suspect is a strip club (though I’ve never been brave enough to google it). In the lead-up to the 2010 election, the panel turned political, becoming a stage for the proudly secular Sex Party.

It’d almost be un-Australian to denounce this Melbourne icon. For thousands of passers-by, it’s a cheeky bit of fun, a harmless plaything to amuse the city’s inhabitants.

Yet the spinning sign’s latest revolution offers more than a little mischief. This time around, the sign’s owners have pushed their freedom of speech a tad too far.

‘ALCOHOL DOES NOT CAUSE VIOLENCE’, declares the capitalised slogan.

It is potent, provocative, and hideously misleading. It reads like the words of an apologetic alcoholic, midway between slipping over and ordering their umpteenth round of shots.

Within a second or two, the sign sparks its anticipated reaction. Then, like a catwalk supermodel flaunting its assets, it twirls around, unleashing its posterior to curious onlookers.

‘BLAME AND PUNISH THE INDIVIDUAL.’

No efforts are made to mask the agenda. The spinning sign is controversy on a stick.

In terms of raw shock value, this secondary motto rivals its obverse. Both ‘blame’ and ‘punish’ are commands to the onlookers. ‘Blame’ suggests that we delegate responsibility to somebody else. ‘Punish’ brings the onus back onto us; it is our duty to deal with them.

This half of the message mentions nothing about serving justice. Nor does it question the behaviour of its audience; it assumes the reader is innocent. The message delivered is thus savage and obnoxious: You are in the right. They are in the wrong. Feel free to attack them.

When both elements combine, the sign’s united implication is that, when consumed by a responsible individual, alcohol is harmless. It is a leisure activity, a tasty beverage, a relic of Aussie culture. It is as much a part of Melbourne as the collective of nearby sporting arenas.

Likewise, ethanol mixed with barley and hops does not produce emergency ward patients. Nor does it generate road fatalities, nightclub brawls, or rape. Indeed, the only link between alcohol and violence are those lewd homo sapiens. Curse them and their wicked ways; they have corrupted the placid ways of alcohol.

The campaign reminds one of the National Rifle Association of America. ‘Guns don’t kill people,’ they assert. ‘People kill people.’ The implication: guns are just passive pieces of steel.

To the N.R.A., psychopaths are evil. So are religious extremists, or depressed youth. But a bad workman should never blame his tools. The gun is lifeless. It wouldn’t hurt a fly. It cannot hurt a fly.

In response, French anthropologist Bruno Latour introduced a new way of thinking. He stated that neither the gun, nor the person, killed people. Rather, the real killer is the ‘gun-person’ hybrid. When a person picks up a gun, they become a new person.

The same logic applies to alcohol; when a body is fuelled with such a toxin, a biological and psychological change occurs. Cells in the bloodstream absorb the alcohol. The central nervous system is progressively tranquilised. The brain’s functioning is impaired; concentration, vision, and speech are affected. In other words, the drinker becomes one with the drink. And that’s just the short-term effect.

Of course, not every drinker becomes violent. But some do.

I don’t need to remind people that alcohol plays a role in 47% of our assaults, 34% of our homicides, or 30% of road accidents. These are the oft-quoted statistics behind every alcohol education lesson, every “nanny-state” government regulation, and every responsible drinking campaign.

Melburnians are well aware of this reality, yet pay little attention to the message. The last thing they need, then, is manipulative propaganda, a reassurance that alcohol consumption is a trivial, overhyped issue.

The Nightclub Owners Forum and the Australian Sex Party have publicly taken responsibility for this campaign. Their justification is to challenge “ill-informed” government legislation and to protect the victimised hospitality industry. They believe their research can cover up alcohol’s detrimental effect on society.

In other words, they want to create a stir. And there’s no better place for that than the spinning sign.

But like all things Richmond, the spinning sign needs some surgery.

A facelift would be a start.

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What do you think of the sign? The Sex Party’s justification for the billboard can be read here.

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