A recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that the majority of the videos using the hashtag #alcohol on TikTok depicted alcohol use in a positive light, ignoring its dangers.
We explore three key issues with alcohol marketing on social media and what can be done to protect children from alcohol harm in the digital space.

In the current digital age, all of us live a part of our social lives digitally through social media. For children growing up in this digital world it is an important aspect of their lives. They gain value from their digital connections. Digital technology allows children to take part in education, connect with others, and access entertainment. This has become even more essential during the ongoing pandemic.

However, the inherent nature of social media makes it harder to monitor and regulate, for example to protect children from harms. This aspect is used by alcohol and other health harmful industries to attract children to their products. Creating social media trends is one such strategy.

A recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that the majority of the videos using the hashtag #alcohol on TikTok depicted alcohol use in a positive light, ignoring its dangers. These videos were collectively viewed over 290 million times. The study sheds light on how social media platforms, such as TikTok, expose children and adolescents to alcohol harm.

TikTok is highly popular with teenagers and generally caters to a younger age demographic. There are over 100 million users on the platform. About 37 million Gen Z teens and young people are reported to use the app regularly. The results of the study are even more concerning since the videos show young people consuming alcohol who could be minors.

The researchers Russell and colleagues analyzed content of 100 of the most popular TikTok videos from July 2019 to August 2020 with the hashtag #alcohol. Collectively these videos were viewed over 290 million times, had 40 million likes and more than 2 million shares.

  • An overwhelming 98% of these videos contained positive portrayals of alcohol.
  • Nearly half of videos (41%) were guide videos demonstrating alcoholic beverage recipes.
  • The majority of videos (72%) included liquor.
  • Consuming multiple alcoholic beverages quickly was depicted in more than half of videos (61%).
  • 69% of videos conveyed positive experiences with alcohol.
  • 55% of videos contained humor.
  • 45% of videos included associations of alcohol with camaraderie. 
  • Only 4% described negative alcohol-related consequences. Even these videos did so in a humorous, not educational, manner.

Alcohol in Social media: Key issues

Marketing by the alcohol industry is a major driver of under-age alcohol use. A growing body of scientific findings illustrates that alcohol marketing is,

With social media and internet becoming increasingly popular, digital alcohol marketing has been linked to increased alcohol use

A recent consumer research found that social media users in the U.S. were more likely to increase their alcohol use during lockdown.

TikTok is not the only social media app where alcohol harm is running rampant. As Movendi International has reported previously, the alcohol industry has used (and probably currently is using) all forms of social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and more to portray alcohol positively, increase sales and profits.

There are three key issues around alcohol advertising inundating social media platforms:

1. Data harvesting for targeted marketing

Recently, several reports from Australia exposed how health harmful industries use children’s data on social media for targeted marketing.

After public outrage following these reports, Facebook changed their advertising restrictions to not allow advertisers to target children based on their interests anymore. However, the problem is not fully resolved since Facebook did not commit to stop harvesting children’s data. This means once children turn 18 years unhealthy industries such as alcohol will obtain ready-made profiles on targeting youth. 

The report by FARE and OPC found that by the time a child is just 13 years of age an estimated 72 million data points will have been collected by companies on that child. This means that kids will be a target for the alcohol industry their entire lives.

2. Advertisement or not? Difficulty in distinguishing and regulating

Certain social media advertisements are difficult to identify as advertising, such as influencer marketing. The alcohol industry attempts to create more personal connections with younger demographics through influencers.

As young people are increasingly moving away from alcohol for health and well-being reasons, Big Alcohol is doing whatever they can to hook another generation.

Brands enlist macro and micro influencers or key opinion leaders (KOLs) to reach target markets in the form of communities. By using relevance and reliability through an influencer’s media presence and persona, brands have a bigger chance of appealing to audiences, especially younger ones. 

Younger generations value personal connection with brands. The alcohol industry exploits this and uses influencers to forge these connections in a bid to increase sales in this demographic that is inclined to reduce, quit or not even start alcohol use.

Most of the time influencer alcohol marketing can’t even be distinguished as marketing since the products are seemingly integrated into the influencer’s lifestyle. Therefore, the people who see these alcohol ads don’t know they are being targeted with alcohol industry marketing. Over time this type of alcohol marketing can associate the specific alcohol brands and alcohol in general with positive sentiments, lifestyle concpets, and ideas of success, accomplishment, and popularity.

Watching these images in some way grants permission. These behaviors become normalized,” said Kristina Giorgi, addiction expert and founder of Full Circle Intervention in response to the study on TikTok videos as per ABC News.

Kristina Giorgi, addiction expert, founder, Full Circle Intervention

Prominent social media influencers have been called out for not disclosing alcohol promotional content on their profiles. A study uncovered that alcohol posts in influencer profiles were popular with adolescents who are under the legal age of alcohol consumption.

3. Lack of proper regulation

Most of the existing policies, laws and regulations governing alcohol marketing have not caught up with the rise in digital media marketing. Hence governments are not equipped to protect children and the vulnerable from harm caused by social media alcohol marketing.

Social media marketing generally extends across borders. Even in countries where alcohol marketing is completely banned, including on the internet such as Sri Lanka, alcohol marketing on social media falls through the gaps.

As ABC News reports, the hashtag #alcohol videos on TikTok can be viewed by anyone with a simple internet search without age verification. Influencer marketing and peer to peer sharing are aspects which are harder to regulate on social media.

This is why alcohol policies, regulations and monitoring systems need to be updated to catch up with the current times.

What can we do to protect our children from alcohol harm on social media

Since it is humans who created social media, it is possible for us to find, invest in and use better regulations and controls to protect our children from harm on these platforms. Some great starting points are recommended by VicHealth in their report entitled “Under the radar: Harmful industries’ digital marketing to Australian children“.

Firstly there needs to be evidence-based policies and regulation to protect children from digital marketing by harmful industries. Such restrictions must ensure:

  • Children are protected from digital marketing by harmful industries.
  • Children’s data is better protected, so harmful industries can’t use it to target them with marketing.
  • Social media influencers with large followings of children cannot promote harmful products.
  • Harmful industries report how much they spend on digital marketing each year, how they collect and use personal information and how they target people via digital marketing.

This should be backed up by stronger monitoring to provide a better picture of how harmful industries market their products, such as:

  1. Platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat) ensure that their processes are clear and protect children’s privacy and data online.
  2. Advertising agencies ensure they have processes in place to stop the supply of inappropriate marketing to children.
  3. Alcohol advertising, sponsorship, promotion is banned, including online.

In addition, there is also an opportunity for public health experts to use these social media apps such as TikTok to reach the younger demographic with attractive public health messaging.

This study shows that there is an opportunity for public health professionals to use TikTok to counteract this social media trend,” said Dr. Madhu Vennikandam, a contributor in the ABC News medical unit, as per ABC News.

Dr. Madhu Vennikandam, a contributor in the ABC News medical unit


ABC News: “New study shows potentially troubling depictions of underage drinking on TikTok”

UPI: “98% of videos hashtagged ‘#alcohol’ on TikTok portray drinking in a positive light”

EurekAlert: “Majority of ‘#alcohol’ videos on TikTok portray drinking in a positive light