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Four strategies Big Alcohol uses on social media

The marketing of alcohol remains a major public health problem. Research indicates that the advertising and promotion of alcohol influences consumption levels, especially among young people and young adults.

New research conducted at RMIT University shows how alcohol companies are employing social media platforms and digital media to leverage their sponsorship of sport. Dr Kate Westberg and Dr Con Stavros are the main authors of Merging Sport and Drinking Cultures through Social Media, based on research funded by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE).

They report many alcohol sponsors of major sports, (especially AFL, NRL, cricket) typically employ Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and apps to engage closely with consumers and have consumers embrace brands.

Using social media, alcohol companies urge consumers to embrace alcohol brands as if they are personal friends: these techniques evade marketing regulations and take the branding of consumers to new depths.

In real time, through social media and digital media, alcohol sponsors of sport use four distinct communications strategies or ‘calls’ on consumers of sport and social media: to compete, to collaborate, to celebrate and to consume.

  • The call to compete engages consumers to compete with and against their friends and others to win a prize, frequently alcohol or alcohol branded;
  • In the call to collaborate consumers are engaged by alcohol brands to co-create content (e.g. images and comments)  that is shared on digital sites owned by the brand and can be co-posted on the consumer’s digital platforms, thereby disseminating the brand throughout the consumers’ personal and social networks;
  • The call to celebrate requires the consumer to drink alcohol while basking in the reflected glory of sporting success;
  • The call to consume alcohol normalises drinking as an integral part of the sports experience during the contest or game and afterwards, regardless of whether the team wins or loses.

These strategies normalise the connection of alcohol with sport, urge consumers to identify closely with alcohol brands, expose people of all ages to relentless promotion of drinking, and fail to offer any real protection of exposure to young people. RMIT’s report shows how children are caught up in the embrace of alcohol marketing via social media at alcohol sponsored sport events.

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Even alcohol brands formally admit it’s not permissible to promote alcohol to youth, and all marketing regulations prohibit the promotion of alcohol to the young. Yet alcohol companies advertise in settings that have high exposure to youth, including television, newspapers, magazines, public transport and billboards. On television alcohol advertising is limited to ‘adult viewing hours’ after 8.30pm, but that apparent restriction is undermined by the exemption granted to the broadcast of popular sporting events which attract a large youth audience

As GrogWatch noted last month Free TV is now trying to convince regulators that ‘adult viewing hours’ should start at 7.30pm instead of 8.30pm as it currently stands, which would increase the hours every day alcohol could be advertised on free-to-air TV. These changes would lead to more viewers being exposed to  alcohol advertising, including children and adolescents.

Sponsorship of sport, as well as music festivals and other events, provides additional avenues for alcohol marketing, which are especially powerful when people purchase merchandise decorated with alcohol logos. Marketing experts suggest that consumers wearing branded logos are the most powerful form of marketing: it imprints the brand on the consumer’s mind and it turns the consumer into an advertising vehicle for other people.

Young people who wear clothing branded with alcohol logos have more positive attitudes toward alcohol, are more likely to expect to drink early, and consume more alcohol at a young age. Alcohol-branded merchandise is a health hazard.

Similarly, the use of social media by alcohol brands is totally self-regulated. The exploitation of alcohol sponsorship in sport via digital platforms requires urgent action by policymakers, as it enables alcohol brands to avoid the usual scrutiny of their methods. We look forward to reading the final report following ANPHA’s Draft Report into Alcohol Advertising in Australia, published more than a year ago.

In the meantime, the community can play its part by putting pressure on professional sport to give up alcohol sponsorships.