Alcohol companies have realized the power of social media in marketing their products to younger audiences. Social media has grown in popularity, particularly among those under 25, and its integration into gadgets like mobile phones, digital cameras, and video applications has created new marketing opportunities.
User-generated content means that consumers are now unofficial marketers rather than simply marketing products.
Diageo, a British multinational that owns popular alcohol brands like Smirnoff and Tanqueray, has heavily invested in social media marketing. Diageo spent 21% on marketing in 2010. The strategy is paying off. Younger are now interested in spirits rather than beer.
In 2011, the company announced that Diageo had enjoyed a collective 20% increase of sales due to Facebook activity.
This type of marketing involves social media platforms, smartphone apps and blogs. It is often used in conjunction with traditional offline marketing. Platforms encourage their users to interact on sites through “like”, “comment”, and “share” features, and post photos of them and their friends out for the night.
Many bars and clubs also hire photographers to post photos of their guests on social media. These venues are very active on the internet and have a highly interactive online presence aimed at a younger clientele.
Marketers can use the data to target messages at young people, encouraging them to buy alcohol. They can also sell this information to third parties. Social media offers new viral marketing opportunities, including “astroturfing”, which uses sophisticated software to create a fake community on forums or opinions; advergaming and user-generated contents (UGC).
Alcohol advertising and promotion can increase young people’s alcohol intake as well as their positive attitudes towards drinking.
Most studies, however, focus on the influence of exposure to offline advertising and messages that are appealing. Most research has been unable to keep up with and the rapidly changing platforms, online practices and social media.
Alcohol is an important theme in the social media interactions of young people, and it’s a key indicator for “user engagement” on the internet. Social media alcohol marketing blurs boundaries between marketing and socialising. This could reinforce a culture that is intoxicated.
Advertisement is still advertising
The rules in the UK for advertising alcohol are some of the strictest rules in the world. They include rules on when and where ads can be shown and a prohibition linking drinking with sexual attractiveness. Alcohol companies use more sophisticated methods to penetrate young people’s social lives and create “intoxicating digital spaces” where drinking is an essential part of celebrating.
Recent research in New Zealand suggested that young adults do not view online alcohol advertising as a form or advertising but rather as useful information on where to get cheap drinks.
The ASA regulates alcohol marketing in the UK, which includes non-broadcast advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing. The code of practice that it uses was drafted by a CAP committee, which includes both advertisers and marketers. Facebook was launched in the UK just one year before this code underwent its last major revision. Since 2010, social media marketing of alcohol via digital and mobile technologies has grown significantly. The effectiveness of the code in dealing with the challenges of alcohol marketing through these channels is also a major concern.
We know that the ASA has acknowledged a problem in the process of determining the age of a young person who wants to access marketing materials online and limiting their access if under 18. It’s easy to get around this by entering another date of birth. Why would they do that?
Where are the youth?
The current rules also prohibit any advertising that portrays alcohol as an enhancing factor in social success or uses adolescent humor or depicts young people drinking harmfully or irresponsibly.
The ASA panel does not include anyone under the age of 35. Therefore, they are unlikely to understand the perspectives of young people on these issues or the impact social media could have on the drinking culture of youth.
The CAP does not regulate user-generated material either. This is a serious lag behind, as it forms a large part of social media alcohol advertising and often reinforces the culture of heavy drinking.
The Australian Advertising Standards Bureau recently ruled that alcohol brands’ Facebook Pages should be treated like marketing tools, and all content should fall under industry self-regulation code of ethics. This includes all UGC.