Emmi Kauppila chronicles the initial findings of the world’s first case study in online alcohol marketing regulation
09 October 2019 – The past decade has seen a rapid development in digital advertising. Social media has become an important marketing platform for the alcohol industry and research has established that alcohol brands not only use social media actively, but also invest significantly in social media advertising on different platforms. This has raised concerns of adolescents’ exposure to alcohol advertising, as social media is extensively used by young people. Further, current regulations have failed to protect minors from digital alcohol advertising, as minors can easily access alcohol marketers’ social media contents. In addition, many interactive marketing techniques typical for social media have been shown to appeal to young people.
How does Finland regulate alcohol advertising on social media?
In January 2015, Finland became the first country in the world to incorporate special regulation of social media into its Alcohol Act. The amendment aims to limit the use of social media for alcohol marketing and prevent adolescent drinking by protecting minors from alcohol advertising. The Finnish Alcohol Act restricts the use of social media alcohol advertising in three ways. First, it forbids the use of interactive games, competitions and lotteries. Second, it bans the use of user generated content, meaning any material produced by consumers may not be distributed through the alcohol advertiser’s social media page. Third, the law prohibits content that is intended to be shared by consumers, implying alcohol brands should not encourage consumers to share content that is produced for the purpose of advertising alcohol.
A recent report by University of Helsinki Centre for Research on Addiction, Control and Governance explored the effects of the legislation. The report provides an overview of Finnish and Swedish alcohol producers’ social media activities, how their content addresses young people, and to what extent they are available to minors. As similar regulation does not exist in any other country, these are the first results on the effects of this kind of social media specific regulation.
How did the 2015 amendment affect alcohol marketing practices?
The 2015 amendment seems to have had an effect on the content of social media alcohol advertising in Finland. Over the studied period, the use of content contravening the 2015 amendment – interactive games, competitions, lotteries and consumer-generated content – decreased in the Finnish samples, whereas the use of these advertising techniques steadily increased in Swedish samples.
Comparing the prevalence of interactive advertising elements to what has been reported in other countries, the Finnish and Swedish examples seem fairly moderate. The majority of brands seemed to use social media for relatively traditional advertising campaigns based on product images and slogans, rather than on the interactive or user generated elements typical of social media marketing. Alcohol producers’ posts did not evoke many reactions in terms of likes, comments and shares and only few brands had succeeded in creating an active social media community around their products. Although the study provides evidence of a declining trend in the use of restricted content, it also shows that the new law has not stopped alcohol brands in Finland creating engaging marketing. Over time, alcohol producers became more successful in generating consumer engagement, suggesting more effective social media advertising.
To what extent the alcohol marketing contents are available to minors?
Very few posts included direct appeals to minors, such as depictions of young people consuming alcohol. Of greater concern was the observation that majority of the alcohol producers’ social media pages were accessible to minors: less than half of the studied brands had activated age checks on their social media pages. This is in line with previous research that has expressed concern over the lack of efficient age-gating on social media and can be interpreted as a serious inadequacy, as protecting minors is one of the most important aspects of alcohol advertising regulations.
The challenges of regulating alcohol-related content on social media relate to the ways in which it operates as an advertising platform. The visibility of commercial social media posts can be enhanced via paid advertising, which can be targeted to consumers based on their age, gender, location or social media activities. By merely observing alcohol producers’ social media posts, it is not possible to determine to whom paid advertising is targeted at or how widespread these sponsored communications are. This poses a great challenge to monitoring advertising.
This study is the first to evaluate the outcomes of attempts to regulate alcohol marketing on. On the whole, the Finnish amendment seems to make alcohol marketers more aware of the need to monitor what happens on their social media sites and to take responsibility for communications on these platforms. The law also seems to be working against the use of user generated content. Controlling alcohol marketing on social media remains a big challenge, complicated by the blurring of boundaries between advertising in social media and consumers’ own content. Our research suggests that alcohol advertisers are learning to become more sophisticated users of social media platforms, and current regulation may not be sufficient to restrict advertising in a rapidly changing and globally operating social media platforms.
For further information, we recommend the full report: Emmi Kauppila, Mikaela Lindeman, Johan Svensson, Matilda Hellman & Anu Katainen (2019) Alcohol marketing on social media sites in Finland and Sweden. A comparative audit study of brands’ presence and content, and the impact of a legislative change. Publications of the Faculty of Social Sciences no 113. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.
Written by Emmi Kauppila (part of a research team featuring: Mikaela Lindeman, Johan Svensson, Matilda Hellman & Anu Katainen), sociologist researching social media marketing of alcohol, food and gambling at The University of Helsinki Centre for Research on Addiction, Control and Governance.
This text was also put on the website of the Institute for Alcohol Studies (www.ias.org.uk) and published with the permission of the author.