Alcohol Brands on Facebook: the challenges of regulating brands on social media

Contemporary advertising has grown to include the corporate use of social media in order to reach as many potential consumers as possible. While there are multiple organizations that exist to monitor advertising – the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, among others – it is growing increasingly difficult to regulate the content put into the social media sphere. In 2012, the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) expanded upon existing regulations in response to studies done on Smirnoff and Victoria Bitter, brands that sell vodka and beer, respectively. They saw social media as a direct form of advertising, and felt that it required heavier regulation for many reasons. The ASB “determined that (i) a brand’s Facebook page is a marketing communication tool, and (ii) all contents on the page fall under the industry’s self-regulatory code of ethics, including consumer-created content…” (Brodmerkel & Carah, 272). While the decision was hailed as a landmark one, an analysis by Sven Brodmerkel and Nicholas Carah argues that acknowledgement of social media as a form of advertising is not enough – brands require more explicit means of regulation.

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There are numerous health and youth welfare advocates who are concerned about advertising of alcohol on social media websites. Currently, there are no strict laws governing the content that alcohol brands can place on social media sites – and brands are creating a large amount of content that is broadcast and shared, particularly via Facebook. Brodmerkel and Carah’s analysis utilizes multiple studies that address not only the prevalence of alcohol advertisements on social media, but also the nature, extent, and results of these ads. One study “underwent a qualitative examination of alcohol messaging on Facebook”, while another “applied a systematic content analysis to social media content generated by alcohol brands” (B & C, 274). Brodmerkel and Carah take the evidence from these studies to postulate that new procedures of industry regulation must be installed. The authors reference a study that followed the Facebook pages of fourteen different brands, and the research came to the conclusion that “alcohol brands engage with Facebook users in specific and strategic ways that aim to stimulate user-generated content that contributes to brands’ image and marketing objectives” (B & C, 274). This study determines that Facebook is indeed a marketing communication channel; brands use their pages to “amplify cultural identities by involving consumers in the circulation of cultural practices and values… stimulate the integration of the brand and alcohol consumption in the mediation of everyday life… [and] manage the mediation of drinking culture in a way that challenges existing regulatory codes” (B & C, 274). Two Facebook pages are used as case studies by Brodmerkel and Carah: Smirnoff and Victoria Bitter. Their pages in particular included content that seemed to be in violation of regulatory codes, for the following reasons: promoting excessive use; discriminatory and vilifying posts; attribution of social and sexual skills to consumption; and the depiction of users who seemed under-aged. While Smirnoff and Victoria Bitter felt that their content was not and should not be considered as advertising, the ASB deemed that consumer engagement activities did in fact create value for the brands. Brodmerkel and Carah applaud the acknowledgment of social media marketing, but argue for further regulation that addresses “how alcohol brands are responsible for the way they interact with and manage their ‘co-creators’ (B & C, 278). Ultimately, the authors call for “a regulatory approach that recognizes that an alcohol brand is not contained within advertisements but is mediated out of the interaction between brands, cultural intermediaries and consumers” (B & C, 280).

In regards to contemporary examples, we have found four brands that are currently managing and creating content on their Facebook pages. A look at the United States version of the Smirnoff page illustrates the authors’ concept that alcohol brands contribute to social ideals of trendiness; “the alcohol brand becomes part of a series of images about fashion, ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ people, bands and DJs, and the social antics of nightlife” (B &C, 279).

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Smirnoff consistently posts content that presents a normalized vision of constant partying. Their images and videos depict various scenes of nightlife – from a video of celebrities Alison Brie and Adam Scott with the caption “Everybody’s invited. Everybody? Everybody. Party this weekend with Smirnoff.” to a series of #Overheard images that portray things that could be heard at an actual social gathering, Smirnoff’s entire online presence is tied to a party. This type of content presents consumption as being a necessary part of everyday life – if you purchase and drink Smirnoff, you can be as hip and cool as the people in their created content. This is inherently advertising, down to the celebrity endorsements. Additionally, Smirnoff has managing control of what is said on their page; consumers’ comment and post images on Smirnoff’s pictures, and Smirnoff’s page replies to some of them. This indicates that the brand that is able to interact with consumers on a personal level. This also implies that Smirnoff has the capability to further manage the posts that their consumers make – some of which are clearly promotional posts that enhance the brand.

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Similarly to Smirnoff, the whisky brand Fireball promotes a normalized vision of drinking in excess. Whereas Smirnoff typically captions its promotional photos, albeit in fine print, with the disclaimer “please drink responsibly”, Fireball does not include any warnings on its promotional material. In fact, Fireball routinely “produces images that glorify excessive drinking practices” (B&C 279), which is one of the main, concerns Brodmerkel and Carah’s have with alcohol brands on Facebook. A recent promotional photo that Fireball posted to the Facebook page features a freezer stocked to capacity with Fireball and is captioned “we’re ready for Friday. Are you?”

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This caption implies that this large quantity of alcohol will be consumed in a short period of time. Other more responsible alcohol brands typically only feature a singular bottle of hard liquor in their advertisements. Additionally, Fireball’s images on their Facebook are a direct violation of the Advertising Standards Bureau’s codes. “Presented images that suggested that the use or presence of alcohol leads to a change in mood or the achievement of social or other success (ABAC code Section (c)(i))” (B &C, 275).

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One of fireball’s images equates levels of friendship with the amount of fireball a “friend” consumes, while another playfully insinuates the best way to make friends is buying them whiskey. The “fire breathers”, which is the moniker Fireball has for its fans also encourage irresponsible actions, such as drinking to blackout and drinking as a game. While it appears as though most of these comments are made jokingly, they perpetuate irresponsible ideas.

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While Heineken might be considered one of the “better” or “more responsible” alcohol brands on social media, Heineken still posts some content that is questionable. A large part of Heineken’s brand image is cantered around youth, vitality and sports. The element of youth in alcohol advertising poses a unique challenge, as underage drinking is a significant issue in many places around the world. One of the Advertising Standards Bureau’s codes states that advertisement content “shall not depict individuals who are under the age of 25”.

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While Heineken’s published ad content generally appears to follows this rule, their online publicity material does not meet this standard. Heineken’s Facebook page features images of young people at promotional events, festivals and nightclubs who appear to be under the age of 25. A significant of Heinekens Facebook content is centered around sporting events, such as the #sharethesofa campaign. These features position Heineken beer as being a necessary part of enjoying a sporting event, and this in turn leads to irrational perceptions of alcohol consumption.

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Finally, the vodka brand Svedka serves as an example of a brand that promotes excessive consumption of their alcohol. In addition to being extremely provocative with their content, Svedka posts numerous recipes on their page and responds to a significant portion of their commenters.

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They have coined the phrase “Instafan,” by highlighting user-submitted photos of their products. For example, they encourage consumers to post images of Svedka bottles on Instagram, and they will choose positive images for their Facebook. Furthermore, they influence consumers to purchase their products by showing them exactly where to locate Svedka, and how to make the exact drinks posted. One particularly alarming example depicts an “Instafan” pouring an entire bottle of vodka into a watermelon. These types of ‘inspirational’ posts promote ideals of over the top consumption. Svedka even shared step-by-step instructions of how to create a vodka watermelon with an excited fan. By existing as an almost-human personality, Svedka’s page is provocative. On Valentine’s Day, they posted an image that encouraged single people to essentially drown their sorrows in alcohol. This exploitation of unhealthy drinking behaviors is an unfortunate by-product of this type of social media advertising.

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The main reason there are laws and industry standards regarding the advertising of alcohol is that alcohol can be misused, and become a danger to consumers. The results of this finding unsurprisingly reveal that alcohol companies are using social media as a form of marketing for their brands regardless of whether the content meets the standard definition of advertising. Brodmerkel and Carah conclude, “brands use these platforms (of social media) for branding and consumer engagement. Branding on social media provides brands with the opportunity to create, amplify and exploit cultural practices” (B&C 280). These type of promotional activities are typically monitored and regulated for the good of the general public, but as the world of social media is rapidly evolving and advancing at dizzying rates, regulatory policies have not kept pace with innovation. Ultimately, it would be prudent for regulators to redefine the scope of advertising and recognize that alcohol brand marketing takes place outside of the scope of traditional advertisements. Therefore, alcohol brands would be responsible for upholding reasonable standards in their marketing content. While our society embraces innovation in social media, we must ensure that our societal values are not compromised along the way.

Brodmerkel, Sven, and Nicholas Carah. “Alcohol Brands on Facebook: The Challenges of Regulating Brands on Social Media.” Journal of Public Affairs 13.3 (2013): 272-81. Web. 28 Ap. 2014.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pa.1466/abstract

-Natalie and Cari

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