New Report Raises Concerns About Online Alcohol Marketing and Youth

DISCUS says its members adhere to rigorous self-regulatory code
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The Federal Trade Commission and the National Association of Attorneys General are being asked to investigate digital marketing of alcoholic beverages, both beer and distilled spirits. The request is coming from the Center For Digital Democracy and the Berkeley Media Studies Group, which plan Tuesday (May 18) to release a report, Alcohol Marketing In the Digital Age, with examples of online alcohol marketing via mobile phones, social networks and more they argue has the potential to attract underage drinkers. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The beer and distilled spirits industries already have self-regulatory codes that prohibit marketing to youth, but the groups want them to toughen those, including banning the use of psychographic information on underage users from any Web site.

That report cites various digital and social marketing campaigns, including Google (YouTube), MySpace, and Facebook that the alcohol industry uses in an effort to track and target their audience. “The alcohol industry’s digital and social media marketing tactics are blurring the boundaries between advertising and content with unprecedented sophistication," said report co-author Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center For Digital Democracy. “The FTC and state attorneys-general should launch an investigation into this new threat to young people online.”

Chester has long argued that the next media consolidation battleground is online, and has pushed the FTC to look more closely at how media companies may be marketing to young people through social networks, advergaming and other methods.

"This report provides further evidence for the FTC's current investigation into privacy and online marketing.  Alcohol marketers are in the forefront of using powerful digital tools to target consumers," Chester told B&C.

"Alcohol industry self-regulation continues to be woefully inadequate in protecting young people from exposure to alcohol marketing," says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This new study of digital marketing documents that alcohol companies are using tools and techniques far beyond the sophistication of any parent seeking to protect their child from exposure to appeals for the number one drug of abuse among kids."

“We can’t comment on a report we have not read," said the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) in a statement. "However, the spirits industry’s longstanding commitment to responsible advertising regardless of the medium has been commended by the FTC and industry watchdogs.

"Distilled spirits 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. Unique within the beverage alcohol industry, the Distilled Spirits Council Code provides for transparent semi-annual public reports detailing complaints against specific advertisements, decisions of the industry’s internal review board and actions taken by each advertiser. Throughout the decades, there has been 100% compliance by DISCUS members with the Code Review Board’s decisions and overwhelming compliance by non-DISCUS members," said DISCUS.

Chester and company want the FTC and state attorneys general to look at marketers' use of "social media, data collection, neuromarketing, and online targeting," and the effectiveness of age verification technologies.

They also ask the FTC to collect and publish expenditure figures for online alcohol marketing, as it does for tobacco marketing.

While the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) and Beer Institute guidelines call for marketing online only in media where at least 70% of the audience is above the legal drinking age, the groups say that figure should be 85%. (Other DISCUS prohibitions in its self-regulatory code include using Santa, the comic pages, or 'rites of passage' storylines to market their product, or making branded hats and t-shirts in kids sizes).

The FTC has put out at least three reports on alcohol marketing and youth in the past decade or so, but even in the most recent--in 2008, Internet was not a major component, accounting for only 2% of ad expenditures.

That report encouraged self-regulation, but the FTC also began the process of a yearly spot-check of up to four beverage suppliers asking for information on their advertising and marketing practices.

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