Australia has an estimated nine million Facebook users active daily, including 7.3 million using a mobile to connect to Facebook. It is the world’s largest and most popular social network.
Alcohol brands have embraced Facebook to promote their product and engage with Australian users. Unlike advertising via print, radio and television, the internet is social and interactive, enabling successful marketing to spread like a virus—hence “viral marketing”. The alcohol industry keeps fans interested through highly targeted and entertaining interactions.
In May I participated in a public forum called “Like, comment, share: alcohol advertising and promotion on Facebook”. It featured Dr Nicholas Carah of the University of Queensland, who was commissioned by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education to look at how alcohol companies use Facebook to advertise their brands.
Dr Carah analysed the activity of the 20 top alcohol brands on Facebook business pages in Australia over 2012. By the end of 2012, the 20 alcohol brands studied had 2.5 million followers on their pages, and had posted 4,500 items of content. There were 2.3 million “like”, “comment” and “share” interactions with alcohol brands’ content. As interactions increased, the reach of the brand increased. Brands may focus on gender or age demographics, depending on the targeted audience and the image they wish to portray.
In the forum, we were invited to join the conversation on Twitter, and I asked the panel about their concerns over regulation of alcohol brands online. Dr Carah said that alcohol brands are irresponsibly skirting advertising restrictions by prompting users to say things the brands cannot. Alcohol advertising legislation does not permit the targeting, portraying or encouraging of people to consume alcohol in excess or rapidly.
To skirt legislation, one alcohol brand tactic is to ask users to respond to questions about the product. For example, Jack Daniels posted an image with the question: “You’re locked in one of the barrel houses. What do you do next?” Dr Carah said that users showed their loyalty to the brand by using humour about alcohol overdose. Users’ posts were visible to their own network of friends, who may also comment adding to the post.
Alcohol brands also incorporate their brand into a user’s identity by inviting them to upload photos of themselves drinking the product and enjoying it, effectively marketing it. Timing is another tactic. Brands most commonly post to Facebook on Fridays between 3 and 6 pm. This optimises engagement with users who are perhaps leaving work for a drink, going to the bottle shop or getting ready to enjoy the weekend, encouraging them to post their weekend drinking exploits.
Dr Carah accepts that people should be able to say what they feel and to market the brand with friends if they want to. Facebook has policies and guidelines on alcohol advertising following Australia’s alcohol beverages advertising code (ABAC) and there are very few complaints from the public. It would appear that alcohol companies are acting responsibly, but Dr Carah argues that this is not the case. Whilst alcohol promotion on Facebook is not illegal, brands prompt users to say things that challenge a regulatory framework.
Dr Carah calls on governments and the alcohol brands to rein in the social media marketing of alcohol in recognition of the serious health and social problems caused by excessive consumption.
The post is an edited transcript of an address by ACT MLA Dr Chris Bourke (www.chrisbourke.com.au) to the Legislative Assembly, which appears in the ACT Legislative Assembly Hansard and can be read here.