Online and out of control: alcohol promotion and advertising

Recent research reveals online promotion of alcohol deserves much more attention. Online alcohol promotion enables brands to avoid the advertising codes that try to regulate marketing and prevent the promotion of risky drinking and the targeting of young people.

Last September GrogWatch reported a study that tracked the online activity of several alcohol brands. It showed Budweiser, for example, sent just 286 tweets to its 15,000 followers but the messages were retweeted by those followers over 13,000 times. That was a huge marketing dividend for a small outlay. Many followers, and recipients of the retweet, are likely to be under 18 years, but checking the age of people who access brands online is difficult.

The same issue applies to alcohol promotion on Facebook as young people can engage with Facebook from the age of thirteen. Dr Nic Carah has reported on his research into the exploitation of Facebook by alcohol brands. Facebook enables brands to engage individually and collectively with consumers, to participate in the consumer’s individual life, infiltrate their social activities, and turn their desire to communicate with their friends into direct marketing tools.

Carah gives examples of how alcohol brands play games with their fans and provoke them to celebrate excessive drinking. For example, Jack Daniels posted an image of one of its barrel-houses and asked “You’re locked in one of our barrel-houses: what do you do next?” Predictably many responses made light of risky drinking such as: “Die the most wonderful death ever” and “Ring and pre-book the paramedics and have the new liver, kidneys and defibrillator ready next morning…”

Of course Jack Daniels could not publicly utter those statements, which turn lethal levels of drinking into a joke, in its own name, but online it can use a shallow ploy to incite other people to do so, and thereby encourage higher sales of their product, at the possible expense of the wellbeing of people who drink it. It’s worth bearing in mind that Jack Daniels, like all other alcohol brands, makes a show of being responsible corporate citizen. Look no further than the website of Brown–Forman, the owner of Jack Daniels: this is what Brown-Forman’s website says about social responsibility:

“At Brown-Forman, we believe in producing and promoting our brands responsibly, safeguarding the environment and helping to enhance our communities. We think being a responsible corporate citizen is not only the right thing to do, but critical to our brand-building mission and continued success.” 

And if you believe that, there’s a beautiful Opera House that you can have for a special price, just this week. It will look terrific beside the Bridge you bought earlier.

Unfortunately, this really isn’t funny. The alcohol industry has never accepted the mildest attempts to regulate its advertising and it has treated its own code, the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code, with contempt. Through online marketing, Big Alcohol shows how it really wants to promote its products, what it really thinks of “responsible advertising” and “corporate responsibility”.

According to Nic Carah, the top 20 alcohol brands in Australia have 2.5 million followers on their Facebook pages and those followers have interacted (i.e. liked, shared, or commented) with the brands’ content 2.3 million times.

The big question is how can online alcohol marketing be controlled to prevent irresponsible and even potentially lethal promotion? The industry cannot self regulate, so a system of independent regulation is necessary.

What do you think? GrogWatch wants to hear your suggestions.


Listen to an ABC Radio podcast of Nic Carah talking about his research


Upcoming Forum on Alcohol Advertising

Next month the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol is holding a forum at Parliament House Canberra on “Recruiting New Drinkers. The Impact of Alcohol on Children.” More details here.