Alcohol marketing on social media is surging, but weak age restrictions are leading to calls for a ban

The Wall Street Journal, By Saabira Chaudhuri;

Health concerns are sparking restrictions on advertising alcohol on billboards and television, but on social media—which transcends national borders—lax age controls and the use of influencers make booze marketing hard to police.

While regulators from New York City to Ireland to Ethiopia have cracked down on outdoor and broadcast ads for beer, wine and spirits in the past year, only a handful have targeted online ads.

That is despite studies showing online alcohol marketing is often seen by people below the legal drinking age, and those exposed are more likely to start drinking or to drink heavily.

“It may not be specifically targeted at children, but it is very difficult to prevent it from appearing on their screens,” the World Health Organization wrote in a report in 2019 calling for governments to do more to monitor and regulate online alcohol marketing.

According to a recent study in the medical journal Academic Pediatrics, 87% of 12- to 17-year-olds in New England recalled internet alcohol marketing. It found that higher recall of such ads was associated with greater odds of having had an alcoholic drink.

 
The alcohol industry has embraced social media as a way to target young adults. Pernod Ricard SA, PDRDY 0.61% the maker of Chivas Regal whisky, spends about one-third of its media budget on digital efforts and has an in-house studio to quickly create content to capitalize on trends. Smirnoff owner Diageo DEO +1.95% PLC has credited social-media influencers, who are paid to endorse products in online posts, for the success of recent product launches.

A spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, a U.S. trade body, says it has worked closely with social-networking sites for more than a decade “to ensure there is technology available to limit advertisements to only those who have registered as being above the legal purchase age.”

But the proliferation of content is proving hard for regulators and even companies to police.

“It’s like chasing the little mice in the middle of a big field,” said Carina Ferreira-Borges, who works on alcohol issues for WHO. “The digital world is, in a way, out of control, and we need better regulation to protect young people.”

While some content can’t be viewed unless a social-media user is above a particular age, there is little to stop people from lying about their ages.

The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, an industry group, in November said it would work with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube to incorporate data beyond the age provided by users to better target alcohol ads. This could include whether they have friends who are underage or use the apps at locations frequented by younger people.

Many alcohol brands don’t consistently use age-gating mechanisms provided by social-media platforms. An analysis of verified Instagram accounts in mid-January by The Wall Street Journal found underage users were able to view online profiles of 12 of the 20 top-selling beer brands in the U.S., 11 of the top 20 spirits brands, and nine of the top 20 wine brands, as ranked by industry tracker IWSR.

To check if users who are below the legal drinking age of 21 in the U.S. could view marketing content, the Journal set up a dummy Instagram profile claiming a January 2005 birthday, making the user 15 years old.

The account was able to follow the global or U.S. accounts of brands including Anheuser-Busch InBev SA’s Budweiser and Stella Artois, Pernod’s Absolut Elyx vodka, Diageo’s Guinness beer and Sazerac Co.’s Fireball whiskey, most with more than 100,000 follows. Instagram’s algorithm then suggested the Journal’s underage account follow other booze-related profiles.

“We are working closely with these brands to work through what may have happened and how they can use the tools to ensure their accounts have the proper age restrictions in place,” a spokeswoman for Instagram’s parent company, Facebook Inc., said.

Instagram recently began allowing businesses and influencers to age-restrict their own accounts, rather than having to request the measure.

Companies said they were investigating why pages were viewable to the Journal’s underage account; several brands introduced age restrictions on their profiles after being contacted. The Distilled Spirits Council said spirits companies regularly monitor their online content and instruct viewers not to forward it to people below the legal drinking age.

Social-media platforms appear to be focused more on issues such as preventing hate speech than on alcohol advertising, said Aleksandra Kaczmarek, head of policy at Eurocare, an alcohol harm-reduction group.

“For the moment, the movement to regulate alcohol advertising online isn’t big enough to threaten their business model,” said Ms. Kaczmarek, who advocates removing alcohol ads from the internet.

The use of social-media influencers to market alcohol is particularly problematic. They often have thousands of underage followers, and posts featuring booze are sprinkled amid otherwise age-appropriate content.

The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking said it has asked social-media platforms to let influencers age-restrict individual pieces of content so their posts about alcohol aren’t viewed by everyone.

Instagram, which is particularly popular among influencers, said it is working on allowing age restrictions for individual posts but can’t say when they would be introduced.

In countries where alcohol ad bans were written before the internet, such as India and Poland, social media provides a loophole.

“Suddenly countries that have been very restrictive on alcohol advertising have found growing advertising online,” said Kalle Dramstad (photo) , head of European policy at IOGT, a network of organizations focused on reducing alcohol harm.

Some countries are starting to crack down. Sweden is considering a proposal to ban alcohol ads on social media. Lithuania in 2018 banned all alcohol marketing including digital. Thailand is considering similar restrictions.

David Jernigan, a professor at Boston University’s school of public health, is working with countries like Thailand to implement national restrictions but nonetheless favors a global ban.

“A lot of us on the public-health side are looking towards the tobacco model,” Mr. Jernigan said, referring to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a WHO treaty that has 168 signatory countries and prohibits tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion. “The marketing readily transcends national borders and it makes national-level approaches difficult.”

Global ad spending on alcohol in online display channels, which include social media, is forecast to rise 23% in 2020 compared with an increase of 6.9% across all media, according to the marketing-information firm WARC.

Companies say they don’t target underage users and abide by internal codes of conduct to ensure their marketing is responsible.

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at saabira.chaudhuri@wsj.com

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