Measuring youth exposure to alcohol marketing on social networking sites: Challenges and prospects

Digital/Social Advertising Trends Assignment

by Bianca Bianchi & Vanessa Zdesar

Social networking sites (SNS) have transformed the way we connect with our friends, family and  the rest of the world. With all of this, the innovated web has also changed the way we are exposed to advertising. Corporations have changed their marketing strategies to adapt to the new “Web 2.0” era, which relies mostly on online content and social networking sites to spread brand awareness. Advertising on social networking sites (SNS) has embedded itself in our conversations and connections online; what was once a billboard ad has now become a viral video that people share amongst their network of friends. People today–the youth market in particular–spend a majority of their free time on the Internet and its various SNS, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Alcohol brands have harnessed the accessibility of SNS and online advertising to become pioneers in the social media marketing industry. Therefore, beer and liquor companies are targeting both their current customers and future (hopeful) customers. David Jernigan and Anne Rushman’s 2013 article, “Measuring youth exposure to alcohol marketing on social networking sites: challenges and prospects” argues that the lack of monitoring on SNS advertising has resulted in alcohol brands normalizing alcohol consumption at a much earlier age than ever before.

Studies done in the past have examined the effects of exposure to alcohol marketing on the youth, but Jernigan and Rushman’s study is the first to examine these effects on the digital, rather than traditional, platform. In the past, traditional mediums like television and radio were used to advertise alcohol brands. However, we have entered the “web 2.0” era, the interactive world of social media. Not only do consumers of all ages spend more time on the internet than before, but now over 75% of teens ages 13-20 use SNS, where the majority of alcohol advertising is done. Jernigan and Rushman’s study entailed analyzing the Facebook activity of 15 alcohol brands surveyed to be the most popular among 13-20 year olds. This was done with the help of an app the authors licensed called CrowdTange. With this app, Jernigan and Rushman were able to monitor the Facebook activity of these 15 brands, both in terms of brand activity and user engagement (i.e. posting, ‘liking’, sharing within the brand’s Facebook page). The three figures below show that by 2012, user engagement on Facebook for these top alcohol brands exploded.

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While most SNS restrict alcohol branded pages to those under 21 in the US, it is likely that users create social media accounts with false ages. Furthermore, these sites are so poorly monitored that alcoholic content not suitable for minors is easily accessible. YouTube, for example, requires a date of birth to create an account and view age restricted material, but teens can easily view the same material from an unofficial page that another user uploads. When creating a Twitter profile, the site does not request a date of birth; therefore, even if different pages within twitter request age verification, it is easy to lie. Once a user puts in the information for one page, it is saved for further pages that normally require age verification. Clearly, it is so easy to circumvent the measures SNS have taken to try and prevent the youth market from being exposed to alcohol marketing.

Not only is SNS content so accessible, but it is easily shared and spread to other underage audience members. In the example below, user-uploaded photos on Bud Light’s Facebook page depict  youthful looking drinkers. The snapshot below is a recent example of Bud Light encouraging user-uploaded photos. While this is simple post of a guy relaxing with a beer, the article explains “Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), ruled in a recent circular that alcohol-branded SNS pages and channels are advertisements” (Jernigan and Rushman. 100). Therefore, a simple post on Bud Light’s fan page is considered an advertisement, one that could be easily exposed to the youth market. With over 9,000 likes, this activity shows up on users’ newsfeeds. Furthermore, the 1,120 shares implies that these photos are now on thousands of profiles. Not only is this free advertising for Bud Light, but also a loophole to access the youth market. Once the image is on someone’s personal Facebook wall, his or her whole network is exposed to the Bud Light image (essentially, the ad). The image and its caption “Nothing feels better than Friday at 5” are very ambiguous signifiers. By making a very simple post that almost any adult can associate with, the image becomes ‘shareable.’


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The next example of easily accessible youth marketing of alcohol brands is on Twitter. Twitter only requires age verification when visiting a public page of an alcohol brand. Again, because of the ability to forge one’s age, all content, including tweets and pictures, is accessible to all users regardless of age and whether or not they are following the brand. The image below is an example of an alcohol brand, Four Loko, taking advantage of the accessible youth market. Because Twitter is a social platform, fans can retweet Four Loko’s tweet and it becomes an advertisement available to all ages through SNS. The title of their profile says “you must confirm you are of legal drinking age.” Although, their tweet from March 25th responds to fan tweets and insures that the company will “continue to bring our loyal fans the products they LOVE!” By talking to the fans directly, this tweet has a sharable quality in it that result in fans retweeting this message and sharing it with their followers. In addition to the tweet being a promoted (paid advertisement), the #FourLoko is a hyperlink that could easily become a trending topic on Twitter.


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YouTube also require age verification before viewing a branded alcohol page. However, because YouTube is a video-sharing platform, age verification is not required when videos are on unofficial channels. The example below is a Budweiser Superbowl commercial that is now on the beer’s YouTube channel. To view the video through Budweiser’s account, age verification is required (though easily forged). However, when shared and embedded onto other web 2.0 pages, the video becomes available to all ages. The commercial itself is a cute story of a love between a horse and a puppy. Therefore, the content was very sharable and was discussed among all SNS and news blogs, resulting in over 50 million views.


This scholarly article concludes that with “all of these SNS, with varying levels of ease, it appears that underage users can access alcohol content” (Jernigan and Rushman. 100). Each site that requires age verification simply asks a user to input his/her year of birth. Although third-party software exists that is able to generate–through the use of outside information–a user’s true age, it is simply not being put to use. Therefore, the lack of regulation suggests that alcohol brands are in control of capitalism in our current society. When reading this article, we (Vanessa and Bianca) agreed that the easily accessible alcohol advertising is embedded in the web because these brands appear throughout multiple channels of contemporary culture. Through sponsoring popular sports, fashion and music events and generating viral content, these brands are now attached to a valued lifestyle that are discussed on the web 2.0. Through this strategy, the youth market described in this article is exposed to alcohol consumption in almost every aspect of digital culture. Alcohol brands are exploiting personal SNS accounts as free advertising through producing content that can easily go viral. Jernigan and Rushman state that these trends need to be monitored and regulated. However, alcohol brands’ involvement with almost every aspect of culture makes it almost impossible to control. The youth market is an attractive group to target. While 13 to 20 year olds cannot legally purchase alcohol, the advertisements on social media platforms can influence their purchasing decisions in the future and build loyalty to brands (and lifestyles). Young adults spend disposable income on alcohol and will need help deciding what brand is cool. By attaching alcohol brands to popular discourses among youth culture, these SNS advertisements promote alcohol consumption as normalized and glamorized lifestyles.


Work Cited

Jernigan, David H., and Anne E. Rushman. “Measuring Youth Exposure to Alcohol Marketing on Social Networking Sites: Challenges and Prospects.” Journal of Public Health Policy 35.1 (2013): 91-104. Print.


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