With underage drinkers accounting for up to 20 percent of U.S. alcohol sales, it’s no wonder that scrutiny of beverage marketing is growing.
Two recent reports shed light on the subject. One found that the industry has decreased magazine ads that are likely to be seen by youth. The other shows that alcohol marketers have pulled out all the stops online–with viral videos, Facebook fanpages, and games featuring their products.
In 2003, alcohol marketers pledged to restrict their ads to media in which less than 30 percent of the audience is under 21. By 2008, they had largely met that threshold, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In all, youth exposure to alcohol ads in magazines fell by 48 percent between 2001 and 2008, they estimated.
However, young people comprise 15 percent of the population, and the proportion of alcohol ads in magazines with more than 15 percent youth readership rose from about 70 percent to 78 percent over the same period, the study found. As a result, teens are still ‘overexposed’ to ads for alcoholic beverages, the researchers said.
Meanwhile, the industry like many others has launched interactive online campaigns. Included are smartphone applications and videos that engage people for minutes at a time, according to a report by the Center for Digital Democracy, Berkeley Media Studies Group and American University. The report also documents social media campaigns that target users who have the word “drinking” in their profiles.
Age verification systems on services like Facebook are supposed to shield underage users from alcohol ads, but they often fail since kids can input fake birthdates, the report says. The study’s authors urged the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to investigate age-verification safeguards and how alcohol beverage companies collect data online.
Lisa Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said beverage companies are showing restraint online. “In today’s marketplace, online . . . channels are used primarily by adults,” Hawkins told the Heartland Instititute, “which makes these platforms responsible and appropriate channels for spirits marketers.”