The alcohol industry has been at the forefront of using digital and social media platforms to promote and distribute their products for more than two decades. Social media channels, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok, are part of the marketing machinery of alcohol companies, retailers and venues, write Aimee Brownbill and Nicholas Carah in Insight. Nevertheless, the promotion, advertising and retail taking place on social media platforms remains unregulated and opaque – people and communities remain unprotected from predatory alcohol industry behavior.
Continuous social media marketing innovations
Since the early 2000s, alcohol companies continue to innovate and adapt marketing tactics on social and digital platforms. They are using multiple tactics:
- Inviting consumers to create, comment, like and share advertising,
- Partnering with influencers,
- Creating augmented reality filters, and
- Shifting to ephemeral video stories that disappear shortly after users have viewed them.
Ms Brownbill and Mr Carah express concern about the evolving alcohol marketing machinery on social and digital media:
Below this constant innovation in formats, we can discern the maturing of a highly sophisticated marketing apparatus.”Aimee Brownbill and Nicholas Carah
Predatory privacy invasion for alcohol marketing
Social and digital media platforms are turning users’ everyday social relationships, behaviours and expressions into data. Those data are used to train algorithmic models that target people at particular locations and times of the day, to respond to what they have been doing and what they have been chatting about online.
Targeted alcohol advertising is becoming fully integrated with on-demand digital retail, which can see alcohol delivered into homes in under an hour.
For example, most of the alcohol ads people see on digital platforms in Australia have “buy” and “shop now” buttons.
Harvesting private data to fuel the alcohol marketing machine makes alcohol easily available anywhere, all the time.
Digital advertisements have become the fridge door at the bottle shop or bar.”Aimee Brownbill and Nicholas Carah
And it allows alcohol companies to personalize and customize alcohol promotions messages to persuade more people, more timely to consume more alcohol.
Ms Brownbill and Mr Carah list a few examples of predatory privacy invasion:
When a person feels sick, or feels stressed, or hasn’t slept well, they might decide to reduce alcohol use in order to feel better.
But when people seek support to reduce their alcohol use, alcohol companies are able to send personalized, targeted alcohol promotions. They find people on Facebook and Instagram with ads pushing people in a customized campaign to buy now, offering alcohol delivery within the hour and free delivery if you buy multiple bottles.
Alcohol marketing machinery: Integration of advertising and online retail
Alcohol marketers are creating a frictionless system for promoting and distributing alcohol via digital platforms. Recently, Endeavour Group invested $35 million in an EndeavourX initiative to develop the next generation of their digital infrastructure to join up targeted advertising with their retail after “online sales grew $603 million in just six months”.
As nightlife precincts, bars and big box retailers reach their saturation point in Australian cities, the alcohol industry is looking for new opportunities. The next wave of growth comes from integrating on-demand distribution into people’s homes – to do with alcohol what Netflix did with cinema and television.
Andy Sutton, Endeavour Group head of data and personalisation was quoted saying that they now targets its audience segmentation more closely, by “distinguishing between premium, mainstream and budget customers”.
This kind of advertising is the product of an algorithmic model feeding on private data: people’s searches online, posts on social media, and previous purchases. The models are designed to respond to individual characteristics, interests and behaviours to enhance susceptibility to the advertising.
The ability for alcohol companies to target an individual with alcohol marketing directly to the palm of their hand through their digital devices with alcohol advertising most likely to appeal to them means it is near impossible for people wanting to reduce their alcohol use to escape this pervasive marketing.”Aimee Brownbill and Nicholas Carah
The extensive information accessed for digital marketing can be joined together because of the deep integration between digital platforms and alcohol companies. Alcohol companies share their website data through to a platform, the platform generates “custom” audiences made up of the alcohol companies’ existing customers, and then the platform develops “look-alike” audiences of potential new customers who have similar characteristics to the alcohol companies’ most valuable existing customers (ie, people who make more frequent purchases or spend large amounts on alcoholic products). They then target this audience with advertisements for the alcohol company. To ensure the content of the ads is most likely to resonate with a person, “dynamic” ads are used, tailoring the sales promotion, price and product in the ad automatically based on a person’s previous searches, shopping and browsing activities.
Lack of scrutiny and accountability
The alcohol online marketing machinery has become entirely routine and ordinary and is entirely impervious to public scrutiny.
But current alcohol marketing regulation is built on the assumption that marketing can be monitored – that it is accountable to independent scrutiny.
These marketing tactics extend beyond the adult population to children and young people. Social media platforms collect millions of data points on children and young people, enabling companies to develop intimate insights into their lives – all so they can target them with marketing. Social media platforms tag children and young people as interested in alcohol, priming them to be targeted with alcohol marketing.
Public health researchers have developed a strong evidence base about the harmful effects of advertising on young people, with research showing that children’s exposure to marketing by alcohol companies increases the likelihood that they will start drinking alcohol earlier and to drink at risky levels. Research has similarly found engagement with digital alcohol marketing to increase risky alcohol use. However, there remains a need to understand the emerging tactics used by alcohol marketers on digital media and the ways in which young people are now active participants in the process of alcohol promotion.
Ms Brownbill and Mr Carah conduct a three-year research project to monitor digital alcohol marketing in two ways.
- Already they are tracking alcohol marketing from over 480 brands, retailers and venues on the Meta ecosystem – Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.
However, due to limited transparency of the algorithms used to target people with alcohol advertising, they are limited in our ways to deduct who is seeing these ads and based on what data.
- Furthermore, many forms of advertising remain completely hidden from view – platforms such as Google and TikTok are entirely unaccountable. Only the people targeted with ads see them.
Given platforms refuse to provide this type of information, the researchers will recruit a small group of young Australians to help track and understand this invisible marketing.
This will reveal how alcohol marketing is showing up in young people’s everyday lives and how it is connected to their identities, social relationships and interests.
If they are going to be a key part of the apparatus of promoting and distributing harmful products such as alcohol, then digital platforms need to be accountable to the public.
Associate Professor Nicholas Carah is Director of the Digital Cultures and Societies Hub, in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland.
Dr Aimee Brownbill is Senior Policy and Research Advisor for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.