While alcohol marketers have agreed to voluntary, self-imposed limits to avoid advertising to underage people, many of the same brands are building digital followings that may include children and teenagers, according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Although CAMY did not claim that marketers are deliberately targeting younger consumers online, the youthful skew of the Internet audience and the appeal of certain beverages in this demographic makes it more likely that this is the case.
Noting the success of digital-marketing efforts for alcohol brands, CAMY found that 10 leading alcohol brands have more than 16.5 million people "liking" their Facebook brand pages. fans of 10 brands known to appeal to youth had uploaded 15,416 user-generated photos of themselves to the brand pages. Pictures uploaded to the Facebook pages included images of Santa, toys and sexually suggestive photos, violating the voluntary marketing standards agreed to by the industry.
While none of this proves that marketers are trying to target youth, CAMY noted that youth are disproportionately represented on Facebook. While 13- to-20-year-olds make up 13.6% of the general population, they represent 22% of Facebook users.
Separate studies have recently found that a large proportion of 12-year-olds evade the age limit on Facebook by lying about their age -- often with the help of their parents. CAMY also tested the social media “age affirmation” technology that is intended to prevent exposure of alcohol marketing to underage youth, but found these measures “essentially meaningless."
The influence of alcohol ads on youth may be especially insidious since they are increasingly disguised as entertainment content. Here the CAMY report quoted Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, who warned: “The alcohol industry's digital and social media tactics are blurring the boundaries between advertising and content with unprecedented sophistication.”
Marketers have been inconsistent in their attempts to cut back alcohol marketing to youth in traditional media, with some media showing greater reductions than others. From 2001-2009, the average exposure of underage readers to alcohol ads in print magazines fell sharply, from about 15,000 gross ratings points to just 8,000, according to CAMY.
But over the same period, youth exposure to alcohol ads in TV soared 71%, due to increased advertising for distilled spirits on cable TV. Thus, the average number of TV ads seen by youth increased from 217 in 2001 to 366 in 2009. In fact, youth exposure to TV ads for alcohol increased more rapidly than exposure for adults 21 and over during the same period.