Link to the report:

Background and aims

Alcohol is a pervasive theme in young people’s social media interactions, and one of the most frequently cited products eliciting ‘user engagement’ online (Ridout et al., 2011; Socialbakers, 2013; Winpenny et al., 2014). The recent expansion of social media use amongst under-25s has created unprecedented opportunities for marketing alcohol products, especially with the emergence of more interactive platforms alongside digital and mobile technologies, most notably smartphones (Carah et al., 2014; Weaver et al., 2013). Most forms of social media alcohol marketing (SMAM) involve marketing messages created by alcohol brands alongside content created by consumers (‘user-generated content’ or UGC). Regulation of SMAM tends to focus on the former, but UGC can influence young people’s attitudes to alcohol consumption by drawing them into close interactive relationships with brands, products and drinking venues (Nicholls, 2012; McCreanor et al., 2013). Although the drinks industry has invested heavily in SMAM since around 2010, to date few studies have examined the nature and potential impacts of online alcohol marketing to young people in depth (see Atkinson et al., 2014 and Purves et al., 2014 for exceptions).

Social media marketing involves a multi-platform social media presence, including smartphone apps and blogs, usually used alongside traditional offline marketing. Social media also offers new opportunities for viral marketing, such as ‘astroturfing’ and advergaming. Platforms encourage users to interact with each other via the ‘like’ ‘comment’ and ‘share’ functions, ‘check-in’ at venues, and via tweet and retweet functions on Twitter (Nicholls, 2012). Many young people also post photos of themselves and their friends on nights out on platforms such as Instagram (Niland et al., 2014), and many clubs and bars have their own photographers, posting images of guests onto the clubs’ own social media pages (Lyons et al., 2017). As well as selling users’ data on to third parties, marketers can use information about people who access their sites to send targeted messages about cheap deals, prompting them to drink (more) alcohol (Bucher, 2012).

Most previous research has focused on social media marketing by specific brands and alcohol products, with less attention paid to the online marketing strategies of organised drinking events and licensed venues used by young people. Many venues have a highly interactive online presence and are less visible beyond their clientele (Evans, 2012; Hubbard, 2011). Research has also struggled to keep pace with the rapidly changing forms of online marketing and the ways in which young people engage with these new media platforms, especially via smartphones (Beer & Burrows, 2010; Nicholls, 2012; Raine et al., 2012; Lyons et al., 2017). This project is the first to conduct a systematic analysis of online marketing aimed at young people in the UK by selected venues as


well as alcohol brands, investigating young people’s engagement and the implications for the current UK advertising Codes of Practice.

The project aimed to:

  1. (a)  Review current social media marketing practices aimed at young people by bars and clubs as well as alcohol brands, examining a selected sample of social media marketing cases in depth.

  2. (b)  Investigate how young people below and above legal age for purchasing alcohol (hereafter, LDA or ‘legal drinking age’) engage with social media marketing by brands and venues, identifying the potential impacts on their drinking cultures, and exploring how these processes might be shaped by gender and social class.

  3. (c)  Assess the effectiveness of the current Code of Practice for regulating social media marketing aimed at young people.

Key findings

*Drinking venues posted on social media more frequently than alcohol brands during the research period

*18-15 year olds were more likely to follow venues on social media than brands

*Venue-level social media was used to both plan and document drinking occasions

*Venue-level content included cheap offers, promotional events, and images of customers as marketing

*Less than 2% of posts by brands and no posts by venues, included messages to ‘drink responsibly’

*Alcohol brands were more popular on social media among younger (including underage) participants, and less popular among older participants.

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