Predictably, the debate around restrictions of alcohol advertising increasingly shifts toward social media, where consumers, including underage youth, spend more of their time and the industry spends more of its money. Forbes just featured a new study that calls into question the notion that falling teen drinking rates can be attributed in part to youth spending an increasing amount of their time on social media, rather than in social contexts where drinking occurs. The authors linked increased time spent on social media and watching television among a sample of 7th to 11th graders to more positive “social norms” regarding alcohol and a modest increase in reported drinking behavior. The authors actually significantly hedged that conclusion by noting their findings “may imply” that social media/television use “promote social norms towards alcohol, subsequently increasing adolescents’ drinking behavior.” Regardless, the Forbes author used the finding as a springboard to explore the relatively open online environment when it comes to alcohol ads. Facebook’s policy, for example, advises that advertisers not target users under age 18, when the minimum age in the US is 21. The study’s author suggests: “The moment has come for social networks like Facebook and Instagram to exercise more control over the content they post. They have to show more responsibility when it comes to content aimed at young people – in this case when it comes to consuming alcohol.”
Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal did its own experiment, setting up a dummy Instagram account that claimed a 2005 birthdate, making the “user” just 15. Even so, that user was able to “view online profiles of 12 of the top 20 top-selling beer brands in the US, 11 of the top 20 spirits brands and nine of the top 20 wine brands.” These included brands produced by Anheuser Busch InBev, Pernod, Diageo and Sazerac. Spokespeople for Facebook/Instagram and the companies said they are investigating how that happened and pledged action to ensure proper age compliance going forward. Indeed, the global producer group International Alliance for Responsible Drinking just announced (January 27) a new set of “Actions to Accelerate Reductions in Underage Drinking.” They include:
- “A clear age-restriction symbol or equivalent words“ on all packaging to convey the message that the products should not be consumed by minors.
- A pledge not to market their no-alcohol products to youth.
- Working with digital platforms to “implement rigorous online safeguards” to prevent underage exposure to marketing messages or brand interactions.
- Working with other industry tiers to develop best practices regarding age verification and “global standards” around online sales/delivery to legal-age consumers only.
Of course, curbs of online content is a much broader debate these days in a digital world that is “in a way, out of control” as a WHO official told the WSJ. And “the movement to regulate alcohol online isn’t big enough to threaten” the industry’s business model, a public health advocate for Eurocare told Forbes. But public health clearly has set its sights on this issue. As long-time anti-alcohol advertising advocate David Jernigan concluded for Forbes: “A lot of us on the public health side are looking towards the tobacco model,” i.e. a more global approach to prohibit alcohol advertising and sponsorship, Forbes reminds.