Business Companies; by Jennifer Duke; 

Spotify has been criticised by a major non-profit organisation for ignoring users with alcohol-dependency issues who have asked to opt-out of booze and liquor-related advertisements.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) has weighed into the competition regulator’s world-first inquiry into the impact of the digital platforms on advertising revenues and traditional media companies.

In a submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission this week, the not-for-profit detailed the difficulties problem drinkers face when trying to avoid alcohol ads.

In particular, it pointed to Spotify users “seeking assistance” on the music platform’s community forum asking for the removal or blocking of alcohol advertisements to them due to dependency issues.

“Spotify’s response is that the issue has not gather enough ‘kudos’ or is not widely felt among users of the platform and at this time they are not providing support to block alcohol ads,” the submission said.

FARE has backed an opt-in system for advertising targeting to “put the control back in the hands of the consumer and increase transparency”, which would see Australians asked whether or not digital platforms can serve them ads based on their interests and demographics.

In particular, it said children “should not be targeted by advertising of any form” and particularly not “unhealthy commodities such as alcohol and junk food”.

“Children should be opted-out of targeted marketing automatically, and should not be able to opt-in, or be opted-in, under any circumstances until they reach adulthood,” the submission said.

“The current practice of digital platforms selling the use of children’s personal information, which is then stored indefinitely, is morally repugnant.”

A particular concern was “unethical marketers” looking for certain traits in data that identified vulnerable people for alcohol advertising.

“While we know that marketers of unhealthy commodities such as alcohol are increasingly using digital platforms to market alcohol and target children, the extent of such marketing is currently unknown.”

Another of the concerns the group has about alcohol promotion on the digital platforms is around user-generated content, which is not considered as advertising despite being “integral” to marketing campaigns.

It pointed to a Cancer Council of Victoria complaint to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme about “fan pages” with alcohol content and promotions. The council was told the pages “have not been generated by an alcohol marketer” and so the panel couldn’t make a determination about the complaint. Other complaints about direct advertising have been upheld.

The ACCC has suggested the creation of a regulatory authority to monitor aspects of the digital platforms, which the non-profit said should include reporting on alcohol advertising, including the amount of the spend and any targeting involved to ensure there was no chance vulnerable groups were caught up.

Inadvertent targeting of those with a dependency was also a concern as those who buy lots of alcohol could potentially be served more alcohol advertisements because “the algorithms have rightly identified the person as interested in that content”.

Google’s policy on alcohol says it abides by local laws and some types of alcohol-related ads were allowed if they “don’t target minors, and target only countries that are explicitly allowed to show alcohol ads”.

Facebook’s policy says that any alcohol advertisements must comply with local laws, industry codes and guidelines, and include age and country targeting that fits with local laws. Alcohol advertising is prohibited in some countries and Facebook has a setting to allow users to “hide ad topics such as alcohol”. On Spotify, alcohol is considered in the category of advertisements allowed “with some restrictions and/or limitations”.

FARE claims it’s not clear how effectively these policies are enforced, saying a “brand may be restricted from directly targeting 16 year olds, but it is unclear if they could target fans of [Korean music style] k-pop or [YouTube personality] DanTDM or other interests that have a large following of young people”.

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