Alcohol branding on social media like Facebook relies on the participation of ordinary users. Brands don’t just make and disseminate specific messages, like we are accustomed to in television and print advertising. In this mode of branding, ordinary users incorporate the brand into a story they tell about themselves, their friends and their cultural experiences.
Brands facilitate interactions, they don’t just convey messages.
On Facebook brands make value by prompting and appropriating ordinary users’ sentiments. Many alcohol brands will post on a Friday afternoon asking their fans what their weekend plans are. When VB posts on its Facebook page, ‘it’s nearly 5pm – time to crack the weekend’s first VB!’ they are arguably prompting users to express their views on Aussie drinking culture. When VB fans reply with statements like ‘Who needs to wait till 5pm? Any time is Beer O Clock!’ or ‘FUCK THAT i cracked my first 4 hours ago haha’ their interaction with the brand incorporates it into the stories they tell about drinking and their own identity. They say things about the brand that the brand itself could never say.
Interactions between brands and consumers on social media often begin in material social spaces like a club, music festival or sporting event. Brands embed themselves within everyday life and cultural experiences through sponsorships and promotional activities. At the Splendour in the Grass music festival, Strongbow Cider installed a large sailing ship. Festival punters sit on the deck of the ship drinking cider and enjoying the festival. They use their smart phones to mediate the experience with photos, check-ins and status updates on Facebook. The brand gets embedded in the story they tell their peers about themselves and their enjoyment of the festival.
This form of branding is canny and flexible. It is embedded in everyday cultural practices and social spaces. It can appropriate those practices and spaces as advertisements. Current regulatory frameworks are entirely about messages in texts produced by brands, they don’t consider the broader social networks and identities alcohol brands stimulate and circulate on social media.
Brands use social media to embed alcohol consumption within the mediation of everyday life.
Facebook is a machine for telling a story about yourself, your tastes and preferences, and your cultural world. Alcohol brands aim to get ‘caught up’ in these everyday media-making activities. Each time a person interacts with a brand on Facebook, that exchange spills over into the news feeds of their friends. Their friends see their interaction with the brand as part of the overall story that person constructs about themselves on Facebook.
Promotional photographers working for brands take photos of consumers in cultural settings like bars and festivals. Those images are then uploaded to Facebook. As those images are tagged, liked, shared or commented on they start to circulate within the news feeds of wider peer networks. The alcohol brand’s image becomes part of a stream of content generated by brands, friends and other cultural intermediaries. If the image was taken at a music festival that a young person went to, then it is likely to circulate along with content produced at the music festival by their friends, the bands they see, and the festival. The alcohol brand becomes a part of the shared stories and memories of the music festival.
On Facebook, an image a brand circulates, or that refers to a brand isn’t just a text that contains a meaning. It is also a device that holds in place a network of social connections through likes, tags and comments. People taking photos in these themed spaces and uploading them do the work of ‘assembling’ a valuable network online that Facebook and brands can watch. While the alcohol brands create the social spaces where this mediation happens, the actual work of producing the images and messages is undertaken by photographers and consumers. Much of the most valuable brand content is created and circulated via the personal Facebook pages of users.
Approaches to critical media literacy need to also address the cultural spaces within which young people communicate and mediate their life and identity. Literacy is not just about young people’s capacity to ‘read’ advertisements and promotional messages, but also their role in producing and circulating them. We need to think beyond forms of literacy aimed only at ‘uncovering’ how advertising works. With a cynical and savvy young audience telling them how things work doesn’t change the cultural practices they are embedded in.
Interaction isn’t just about circulating messages, it is also about surveillance and profiling.
The interactions between brands and users on Facebook also generate data about users that can be watched, tracked and responded to. Each time an individual interacts with an alcohol brand on Facebook they connect their ‘social graph’ – the identities, interests and networks of their friends – to that brand. This information can be used to determine the targeting and placement of advertising based on your identity, interests, peer network, attendance at events, or location. These practices also have a cumulative effect, over time social media and brands can discern and predict the development of cultural identities and practices. This will potentially enable them to stimulate or amplify particular cultures of consumption in highly targeted ways.
Targeting and profiling leads to an increasingly fragmented audience being sent customized messages. This makes brand activity very difficult to monitor. In the past alcohol brands’ messages could be viewed in their entirety by simply watching print or broadcast media. On Facebook this isn’t possible. We can see a brand’s official page, but this is only the beginning of the brand activity. We can’t see how all the branded content gets distributed into the social networks and news feeds of users. And, that’s where the real value and impact of this branding activity occurs. It is in the news feeds of users that it gets associated with, and their identities and cultural practices.
The regulation of alcohol marketing on social media has to consider how brands make deliberate use of cultural practices, identities and spaces. Alcohol brands use our culture and identities as a resource. They harness and appropriate our social interactions and spaces. These activities and the forms of alcohol consumption they promote affect the quality of our cultural life. We need an approach to advertising regulation informed by a sense of the common good, that what matters here is the way alcohol branding and consumption exploits and affects the quality of our public spaces, pastimes and culture.