FTC Asked To Probe Alcohol Marketing Online

Consumer watchdogs are questioning whether alcohol companies inappropriately target Web users under age 21 via online video, games, social media and other digital platforms.

"Today, alcohol brands (like other major advertisers) are promoting their products across a wide spectrum of new platforms -- from social networks to mobile phones to immersive, virtual communities," the groups state in a new report that details how alcohol companies are using online social games, viral video ads and other digital marketing techniques.

The report, by American University professor Kathryn Montgomery, Center for Digital Democracy director Jeff Chester, and Berkeley Media Studies Group's Lori Dorfman, calls for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the use of digital marketing by alcohol companies. The groups are specifically urging the FTC and state attorneys general to probe whether liquor companies are using behavioral targeting techniques -- including creating profiles of Web users -- to reach users who aren't yet legally allowed to drink.

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"The FTC and other regulators need to determine whether alcohol beverage ad targeting is reaching specific young people and their networks, providing a complete picture of the industry's online data collection practices -- including whether their privacy policies are accurate," the report states.

Currently, alcohol industry self-regulatory standards call for ads to run in media where at least 70% of the audience are adults over 21. But the watchdogs say that such standards are outdated in the age of YouTube, when clips that go viral -- like Smirnoff's Tea Partay -- draw millions of hits. "Marketing is now fully integrated into daily communications and social relationships, not cordoned off in a special category of 'advertising,'" the report states.

The report also faults alcohol companies for using online age verification procedures that rely on people entering their birthdates -- a system that youngsters can bypass by providing a fake date.

Johns Hopkins associate professor David Jernigan says the study raises troubling issues. "Internet marketing immerses the audience in a world that has a single message -- and the message in this case is: It's good to drink," he says. "We need the FTC to use its power and, failing that, for the state attorneys general to use their power to start inquiring about what the industry is doing."

The self-regulatory group Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. says that member companies "adhere to a rigorous set of content and placement guidelines for advertising and marketing materials in all media including online and digital communications channels." The organization adds that the industry's "longstanding commitment to responsible advertising regardless of the medium has been commended by the FTC and industry watchdogs."

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