Alcohol Ads in Social Media Targeted by Advocacy Groups

Published June 9, 2010

Two advocacy organizations released a joint study in May calling for increased regulation of alcohol advertising to online social media customers. “Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age,” funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, concludes sophisticated social media marketing encourages underage and binge drinking. 

Coauthored by Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Kathryn Montgomery of the American University School of Communication, and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), a project of the Public Health Institute, the study arrives at conclusions similar to those reached in the United Kingdom. One of the most notable UK studies is the 2009 report “They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff: An Analysis of Internal Alcohol Industry Advertising Documents,” conducted by Gerard Hastings, director of the Institute for Social Marketing.

Battle of Hastings
According to Hastings, self-regulation is insufficient in the alcohol advertising marketplace and the adult beverage industry is using social media to gain market share and increase its customer base. Citing internal documents from alcohol producers and distributors, the report finds “many references are made to the need to recruit new drinkers and establish their loyalty to a particular brand.”

In response to Hastings’ conclusions, David Polcy, chief executive officer of the Portman Group, a UK trade group of spirits producers who advocate responsible alcohol advertising and consumption, stated, “I wish Gerard Hastings would publish his criticism in an advertisement. The Advertising Standards Authority could then rightly ban it for being misleading.”

“Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age” details online alcohol marketing activities the authors assert promote illegal and unhealthy alcohol abuse by minors. According to the authors, these marketing strategies  include employing “social media monitoring tools to track, analyze and better target consumers who use Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites and creation of videos with the specific intent of becoming “viral marketing vehicles.”

Industry Self-Regulates Ads
In the United States, two major trade associations are responsible for creating and enforcing advertising codes for use within the trade. The Distilled Spirits Council’s “Code of Responsible Practices for Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing” and the Beer Institute’s “Advertising and Marketing Code” both have specific regulations on acceptable advertising practices on the Internet.

Among a host of other requirements, both codes specify forums for advertising must consist of an audience expected to be at least 70 percent adult.

‘Threat to Young People’
The CDD/BSMG study was sent to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) to urge them to conduct investigations of alcohol marketing in digital media, including use of social media, online targeting, data collection, and neuro-marketing. The authors also recommend the FTC and NAAG investigate Google/YouTube and Facebook.

Additionally, the study recommends alcohol marketers strengthen their self-regulation codes and be legally required to publish annual “transparency” reports documenting all digital and virtual marketing efforts. The authors also advocate requiring alcohol marketers to observe a “15 percent maximum youth audience standard, based on users ages 12 to 20 … for placing advertising in digital media.”

John Nothdurft, a legislative specialist at The Heartland Institute who often deals with regulation of the tobacco and alcohol industries, argues the calls for regulation are overwrought.

“The expansion of such ad regulations to every product that some advocacy group deems ‘harmful’ is a continuation down the slippery slope,” said Nothdurft. “Recently an advocacy group absurdly called for the retirement of Ronald McDonald in an effort to eradicate child obesity in America, as if that would have any effect.”

WHO Calls for International Rules

The World Health Organization (WHO), responsible for one of the most extensive anti-tobacco campaigns, is likewise calling for increased regulation and is advocating international oversight.

Some alcohol distillers, marketers, and distributors agree with WHO’s recommendation for intensified efforts in the area. Carol Clark, a spokesperson for Diageo, an international beer, wine, and spirits company, said her company approves of all the voluntary recommendations made by WHO, including increased efforts to suppress drunken driving and binge drinking.

Major trade groups say they have no problem with further attempts to curb underage drinking as long as they remain voluntary. However, Lisa Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, dismisses the increased regulation as beyond the call of duty, noting the FTC has praised adult beverage companies that “adhere to a rigorous set of content and placement guidelines for advertising and marketing materials in all media including online and digital communications channels. The spirits industry’s longstanding commitment to responsible advertising regardless of the medium has been commended by the FTC and industry watchdogs.”

Aging Social-Media Demographic
Hawkins points out adults increasingly use social media, which means the media shouldn’t be treated as catering only to those too young to consume alcohol legally, she argues.

“In today’s marketplace, online . . . channels are used primarily by adults,” Hawkins said, “which makes these platforms responsible and appropriate channels for spirits marketers. With Facebook and YouTube demographic data showing a 276 percent increase every two months for 35 to 54 year olds, it is the fastest growing segment.”

Marc Oestreich [[email protected]] is legislative specialist for education and telecommunications policy at the Heartland Institute.