Chuck Ross

It Should’ve Been the Greatest Panel in Trade Show History. Its Title Was ‘Drinking Improves Creativity’ — The Sober Truth: This PromaxBDA Panel Was Somewhat Fun, But Fell Off the Wagon. Why It Was a Wasted Opportunity

Jun 15, 2012

It was easily the most anticipated panel at this week’s 57th annual PromaxBDA international conference here in Los Angeles. PromaxBDA is the trade group for, primarily, those who have marketing and design-related positions in the TV industry.

The Thursday afternoon panel on June 14, 2012, was called “Drinking Improves Creativity,” and here’s how it was described in the PromaxBDA program guide: “Recent studies indicate that drinking improves creativity and aids in problem solving. In this first-of-its-kind session at PromaxBDA, we dive into this cutting-edge research (and maybe some cocktails) to get at the deeper implications for optimal work habits for creatives in the meeting and e-mail-cluttered world they find themselves in.”

The 360 seats inside Salon D at the JW Marriott, where the session was being held, were quickly filled up, and, with the remaining SRO crowd, there were easily more than 400 people in the room. Pet peeve No. 1: Why is it, at convention after convention that we all attend, at least one session that the organizers should have realized would pull a big crowd is never put in a room big enough to accommodate all who want to attend that session?

I asked the two people sitting next to me why they were in the session. Both said they were there primarily because it had been talked about as the one must-attend session all week. By the time it was over, however, it had lost its buzz factor.

Here’s how the session went: Upon entering the salon, one could see them setting up a makeshift bar on stage, complete with a bartender. That was intriguing.

Soon, our moderator — the estimable Michael Ouweleen, senior vice president, group creative director at the Cartoon Network — took the stage. Ouweleen, who is quite personable and has a wonderful sense of humor, drolly announced that we should all stay for the next session, “Hangovers Make You Young.” Then he showed a slide thanking the sponsor of our “Drinking Improves Creativity” session, Jagermeister.

Next he introduced stand-up comic Matt Knudsen as the first panelist. A clip of Knudsen on Conan O’Brien’s show served to introduce the comic, whose humor is as dry as a martini.

Speaking of which, Knudsen quickly took a pomegranate martini from the bartender, and took a sip as he sat down. “I’m already feeling more confident,” he quipped. Ouweleen was quietly sipping on his own drink, a dark and stormy (dark rum and ginger beer).

After kibitzing with Knudsen for a few minutes, Ouweleen introduced the next panelist, photographer, musician and skateboarder Atiba Jefferson. Jefferson asked for a Budweiser from the bartender, and poked a hole on the side of the beer can near the bottom. Holding it up to his mouth, he downed the contents within seconds, and sat down for his chat with Ouweleen.

The audience was beginning to get the pattern. Ouweleen then introduced the next panlist, Blake Hazard, a singer with the L.A. indie pop duo The Submarines. The group’s songs have been featured on some TV shows and some Apple iPhone commercials.

Hazard had her guitar with her and sang a song. Then she drank some vodka.

Finally, Ouweleen introduced the final panelist, Andrew Jarosz, who, like Jeffterson, had a beer.

It was during Ouweleen’s conversation with Jarosz that we came to learn why the panel was called “Drinking Improves Creativtiy.”

As a psych grad student at the University of Illiniois at Chicago, Jarosz was the co-author of a study published in the March 2012 issue of the journal Consciousness and Cognition. The study had this alluring title: “Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving.”

For years, various artists — from writers to performers — have had a close relationship with the bottle. But there has been precious little real scientific inquiry into any kind of correlation or connection between alcohol and creativity.

As explained in an article in Science News on March 28, here’s what Jarosz and his colleagues did: “In the study, 20 social drinkers watched an animated movie while eating a snack. Volunteers then drank enough of a vodka cranberry drink to reach an average peak blood alcohol level of 0.075 percent, just below the current 0.08 percent cutoff for legal intoxication in the United States. Another 20 social drinkers watched the same movie without eating or drinking.

“Men in both groups then completed a creative problem-solving task. For each of 15 items, volunteers saw three words — say, peach, arm and tar — and had to think of a fourth word that forms a phrase with each of them, such as pit.

“On average, participants at peak intoxication solved about nine problems correctly, versus approximately six winners for the sober crowd. It took an average of 11.5 seconds for intoxicated men to generate a correct solution, compared with 15.2 seconds for sober men. Both groups performed comparably on the test before the study began.”

The next question to ask is what’s going on to produce these results in the men. “Researchers have a few ideas,” according to an account of the study in The Week. “It’s possible that ‘a moderate buzz loosens a man’s focus of attention, thus making it easier to find connections among remotely related ideas,’ says Bryan Nelson at the Mother Nature Network. Another explanation is that intoxication might aid ‘verbal creativity partly by lowering the ability to control one’s thoughts,’ making the test subjects less afraid to make mistakes.”

Jarosz basically explained the study to us during the session. By the way, Jarosz never explained — nor was he asked — why they only did the study with men and not women.

Spurred on by questions by Ouweleen and by the audience in the room, various subsidiary issues were discussed by the panelists. How does one define creativity? Beyond alcohol, what drives creativity? How do you get into the creative zone?

You get the idea. At one point Atiba Jefferson, the photographer/skateboarder, displayed the following picture on the screen:

atiba photo skateboarder.jpg

He said it was the best picture he’s ever taken and that he was plastered when he took it.

Finally, as the panel ended, Ouweleen declared that our bosses need to give us time to be more creative.

Not a bad idea and one that some enlightened companies, such as 3M in St. Paul, Minn., I believe, actually do.

But what was the point of having the panelists and our moderator jump on stage and down an alcoholic beverage before talking?

If Ouweleen and his colleagues really wanted to make the session memorable, here’s what they should have done. At various other sessions and gatherings during the week they should have been asking for, say, a half-dozen male volunteers from the PromaxBDA attendees to participate in the session. Then, they’d take half of them and start to get them up to a 0.075 alcohol level, with the three taking their last drinks during the session.

Then they could have had Jarosz replicate the study live. The three volunteers with the enhanced blood alcohol levels would play the word association game versus the three sober volunteers.

Now that would have been awesome and memorable.#


  1. More awesome would have been giving everyone in the room a drink as THEY entered. (Can’t believe they couldn’t arrange for a real sponsorship from Seagram’s or some other distributor.) Now THAT would have been a Promax people would remember!

  2. I do think drinking improves creativity.

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