Social media has become a self acquired tic Millennials just can’t control. The compulsion to have a phone in hand at all hours of the day is one that has seamlessly integrated itself into so many lives creating a generation that is more accessible than ever. Yet, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are no longer just spaces for niche users but have gathered pulsing global communities that have become a prime target for advertisers, including those of alcohol brands.
Excessive alcohol consumption has devastating effects on society. It is the fifth leading global risk factor for poor health and is estimated to cause 3.3 million deaths worldwide every year according to the National Drug Research Institute. Yet promotion of alcohol is rife. In Australia, only advertising on television and radio is regulated by the federal government and even though promotion on social media is being heralded as a new frontier, it is unregulated. A review published by the WA Cancer Prevention Research Unit at Curtin University earlier this year, revealed evidence that young people are influenced to drink by advertisements and are increasingly being exposed to high levels of alcohol promotion through digital media.
Co-author of the review, research fellow at the School of Psychology at Curtin University and deputy director of the WACPRU, Michelle Jongenelis has been active in health promotion and research into the effects of alcohol for the past five years. She says the effects of alcohol consumption in youth are dangerous and far-reaching.
“What a lot of people don’t realise is that adolescents and young adults’ brains are still developing and so the consumption of any amount of alcohol has the potential to result in long-term harm in terms of mental health and alcohol dependence but also brain development and executive functioning,” Dr Jongenelis says. “Unless we start reducing alcohol advertising then the likelihood of those alcohol-related harms happening will remain the same.”
It is common for young people to be surrounded with cold stubbies at a barbecue or the clink of wine glasses at mealtimes. Drink Wise notes that in 2017, 37 per cent of Australians drank weekly. Social drinking is not new. What is new, is for the 940,000 social media users aged 13 to17 to have an advertising platform at their fingertips on their phones, 24 hours a day. Dr Jongenelis says the sharing of alcohol related content between young users disguises advertising as interactions between friends and not as interactions with brands. Competitions to share photos accompanied with a brand sponsored hashtag or the use of Snapchat filters that feature an alcohol brand are designed to be appealing for social media users and are accessible to anyone on these platforms.
“Basically they’re not even realising it is an alcohol advertisement and an alcohol brand is trying to sell them something via their friends. They are not making that connection,” she says. “That shared content, that’s what the alcohol industry is thriving on to increase the sales of their products.”
Advertising is no longer operating in a vacuum. The audience receiving the message is often quite different to what advertisers initially plan. According to WA’s McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, one in five young people aged 16 to 24 years reported they had visited an alcohol-branded page on Facebook, 10 per cent were under the age of 18. Further investigation by the centre found in a three month period there were 1,600 pieces of content shared on the social media profiles of Australia’s 10 leading alcohol brands. The posts were liked 73 million times and reached 300,000 individuals.
These figures are a triumph to advertisers. Alice McLean a senior social media manager at Australia’s leading social media advertising firm Hello Social, says social media is invaluable but always used within the industry codes of conduct.
“Alcohol brands have the fortune of being able to be more fun and creative with their content and tone of voice, so social is often a great tool for them. User-generated content that a brand can then repurpose is a major benefit of doing social campaigns,” she says. “With every campaign, we of course take into consideration any risks or concerns that may arise and plan for how to mitigate. We would never run a campaign that we felt was too risky or offensive.”
Ms McLean says alcohol advertising on any medium does not attempt to entice younger audiences but focuses on long term adult consumers. “When marketing alcohol brands or other sensitive topics or brands we prefer to play it on the safe side and only target people who are already familiar with alcohol brands, rather than sway new audiences,” she says.
But who decides whether advertisers are acting below the line? According to Australia’s primary watchdog on alcohol advertising it is up to alcohol brands to judge their own content, including that on social media. The Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme was developed under the recommendations of the Australian Government to independently monitor the content of alcohol advertisements. The code provides a guide on appropriate marketing of alcohol products including that they must not appeal to people under the age of 25. The code is funded and regulated by the alcohol industry, is purely voluntary and infrequently enforced. The Australian Communications and Media Authority only limits the placement of booze ads on television or radio to certain strict times but seemingly ignores placement of ads on social media. So social media advertising is guided by the ABAC Scheme which can only provide a guideline for appropriate content and acts only if an advertisement is complained about by the public. In 2016 the scheme adopted social media promotion into the code however criticism about effectiveness of the code in such a quickly evolving media landscape continues to grow.
In response, the McCusker Centre with the Cancer Council developed the first independent review system in Australia known as The Alcohol Advertising Review Board. This board was developed as a response to concerns about the effectiveness of the ABAC Scheme and aimed to provide regulation of alcohol advertising that was independent of the alcohol advertising industries. McCusker Centre research Associate Hannah Pierce says it is difficult to navigate the virtual minefield of social media due to its vast nature and quantity. “Alcohol advertising on social media isn’t always visible to everyone. It can be very targeted, so if you are not in the selected demographic you won’t see the ads on your social media feed,” she says. Posts made on alcohol brands’ social media pages will only be visible to the people following the brands themselves or if someone in their network of friends interacts with a brand page. So people on the lookout for potentially harmful content may not even see it.
According to Pierce, in 2016-17 almost a quarter of the complaints to the Advertising Review Board were received about advertisements on social media. Yet, multiple complaints are not enough to initiate change. “Industry self-regulation of alcohol advertising does not work. We need the Australian Government to introduce strong, independent regulatory controls on alcohol advertising to protect children and young people, including controls that restrict alcohol advertising on social media,” she says.
The pool of evidence linking the promotion of alcohol with the uptake of unhealthy drinking habits is growing, with 79 per cent of Australians on social media according to Sensis. It is not surprising that an industry worth billions will follow them online. However, the impact of alcohol promotion on young people’s willingness to engage with booze is only now becoming known. The debate on regulation of social media is just beginning.
Dr Jongenelis says: “We are finding ourselves in the same position we were a couple of decades ago with smoking, when cigarette companies were sponsoring sporting teams. The alcohol industry is testing how far they can push their advertising and so something definitely needs to be done to minimise harm.”