“Booze pages” on Facebook that have as many as 10m “likes” have been blamed for promoting excessive drinking through giveaways and posts that suggest things like drinking early in the morning.
Alcohol companies have certainly spotted the potential of social media to market their wares to a younger audience. The growth of social media, especially among under 25s, and its integration with gadgets such as mobile phones, digital camera and video applications has created unprecedented opportunities for marketing alcohol products.
And user-generated content now means that rather than just marketing products to consumers, consumers themselves have become unofficial marketeers.
Diageo, the British-based multinational company that owns many familiar alcohol brands such as Smirnoff, Tanqueray and Captain Morgan, has invested heavily in social media alcohol marketing. In 2010, this accounted for 21% of Diageo’s marketing budget. It’s paying off, with more younger people now interested more in spirits than beer.
The company extended its multi-million dollar partnership with Facebook in 2011, after reporting that Diageo brands had collectively enjoyed a 20% increase in sales as a direct result of Facebook activity.
This type of social media marketing usually involves a multi-platform social media presence as well as smartphone apps and blogs, often alongside traditional offline marketing. Platforms encourage users to interact with sites via the “like”, “comment” and “share” functions, posting photos of themselves and their friends on nights out.
In addition, many bars and clubs hire photographers who post pictures of guests on their social media pages. These venues have an active online presence that is highly interactive and very much aimed at youthful clientele.
As well as selling users’ data on to third parties, marketers can also use this information to send targeted messages to young people about cheap deals, prompting them to drink alcohol. Social media also offer new opportunities for viral marketing, such as “astroturfing”, where sophisticated software is used to create fake community or opinions on web forums; advergaming (advertising in games) and user-generated content (UGC).
Exposure to alcohol advertising and promotion increases young people’s alcohol consumption and positive attitudes to drinking.
But most studies focus on the impact of offline advertising content, exposure and appealing messages in branding. The majority of research has struggled to keep pace with rapidly changing social media platforms and online practices, especially the growth of video material and UGC.
Alcohol is a pervasive theme in young people’s social media interactions, and a top index of “user engagement” online. And social media alcohol marketing blurs the boundary between marketing and socialising, possibility reinforcing a culture of intoxication.
It’s still advertising
The advertising rules for alcohol in the UK are among the strictest in the world and include a ban on linking drinking and sexual attractiveness and rules about when and where adverts can show. It also means that alcohol companies are using more sophisticated techniques to infiltrate young people’s everyday social lives to produce “intoxigenic digital spaces”, where drinking is a routine and essential part of celebrations.
Research in New Zealand recently suggested that young adult drinkers do not necessarily view online alcohol marketing as a form of advertising, but treat it as useful information about where to find cheap drink.
Alcohol marketing in the UK (which includes non-broadcast ads, sales promotions and direct marketing) is regulated by the ASA. But the code of practice it works from is drawn up by a committee called CAP that includes bodies representing the advertisers and marketers. Facebook launched in the UK in 2004, just a year before the last major review of this code. But social media alcohol marketing via mobile and digital technologies has been greatly expanding since 2010. There’s also considerable concern over the effectiveness of the code to deal with the challenges and complexities of alcohol marketing via these channels.
We know the ASA recognises that there’s a problem with the procedure of checking the age of young people wanting to access online marketing materials and limiting access if they are under 18. People can easily sidestep this by putting in another date of birth and it’s generally argued that young people are the ones not complying with the rules. But why would they?
Where are the young people?
Along with promoting sexual attractiveness, the current rules prohibit advertising that represents alcohol as enhancing social success, uses adolescent humour or portrays young people drinking in harmful or irresponsible ways.
But assessment of this content is based on subjective judgements, and since the ASA panel doesn’t include input from anyone under 35, it is unlikely to appreciate young people’s perspectives on these issues or the potential impact of social media on youth drinking cultures.
The CAP also doesn’t regulate user-generated content. This is seriously lagging behind as this forms a substantial part of many social media alcohol marketing and frequently reinforces the culture of heavy drinking.
A recent ruling by the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau stated alcohol brands’ Facebook pages should be treated as marketing communication tools, and all contents should fall under the industry’s self-regulatory code of ethics, including all UGC.
Christine Griffin will be supervising a three-year PhD studentship on alcohol marketing through social media that will be linked to the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies.