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Young people and alcohol marketing on social media

Alcohol companies have increasingly turned to digital marketing on social media (interactive online platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter) as a relatively cheap but highly effective way to market and promote their products, particularly to young people. For digital alcohol marketers, creating online content that captures users’ attention and makes them want to share it amongst their own networks is the goal.

Social media are central to many young people’s lives, and being visible in this environment is important. Alcohol-related content (including videos, photos and updates) is particularly valuable as it gets more comments and likes than other content, increasing visibility for the person sharing the content [1]. ‘Liking’ particular alcohol brands on social media, following particular pubs and bars, and interacting with alcohol products online, are all ways in which young people gain attention and create online identities.

Major alcohol companies have set up partnerships with social media companies to tap into this digital world. For example, Heineken works in partnership with Google, Facebook and Twitter, spending over a quarter of its marketing budget on digital marketing, while Diageo’s CEO commented that “It is not about doing ‘digital marketing’, it is about marketing effectively in a digital world” [2].

Social media have fundamentally altered the landscape of alcohol marketing, and the following six key features make it distinct:

1 Reach

Social media can reach huge global audiences. Alcohol brands have millions of Facebook page fans: currently Skol has over 12.5 million and Bud Light almost eight million.  Heineken’s global partnership with Google in 2011 led to a major increase in their YouTube activity, which the European Center for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing estimated “that at least 103 million minors around the world are being exposed to the harmful effects of alcohol marketing on a monthly basis” [3].

2 Targeting

Social media platforms use algorithms to target specific, highly customised groups, based not only on demographics but also on what people like, share, look at, who their friends are and so on. Alcohol companies’ partnerships with social media corporations are designed to build mini profiles of users so that they can target ads directly to them.

3 Interaction

Social media platforms allow much greater engagement with users than any other form of media marketing, and strive for interactive relationships. Here young people aren’t passive recipients but actively engage with, co-create and disseminate marketing messages.

4 User generated content

Young people express themselves on social media with user-generated content, be it a Tweet, a Facebook status update or a video shared via YouTube. Alcohol marketers create content they know people will really want to share with their friends. It’s a form of ‘free labour’; essentially people doing unpaid work for companies to make them profits. As people share this content, brand messages are passed on to the newsfeeds of friends, making the marketing ‘under-the-radar’ and difficult to identify as marketing.

5 Real world tie-ins

Alcohol brands partner with popular artists, sports and cultural events, music festivals and other key areas of youth culture, and encourage young people to post about the event or experience on social media. This gets ‘user-image’ content that enhances the brand [4].

6 Mobile technology and real-time marketing

Geo-location technology on smartphones allow alcohol marketers to personalise messages to people based on their current location, in real time. For example, Heineken provides a fully interactive digital/real world experience when people go out at night, called Heineken Live. The App gives users up-to-date knowledge about what’s happening based on where they are in the city in real time, including posts about specials, parties, and music. Users accrue points that get them rewards – a bit like Pokemon Go for drinkers.

Digital alcohol marketing breaches codes and regulatory guidelines in a number of ways, including by  reaching underage drinkers [5]. It’s linked to young people starting to drink at younger ages, drinking greater amounts and drinking more often [6, 7]. This marketing also normalises regular drinking and a culture of intoxication among young people [8].

Alcohol companies are effectively reaping the benefits of a digital environment that is virtually unregulated. Industry self-regulation isn’t working, while public health recommendations to protect young people from overexposure to digital alcohol marketing have largely been ignored. There’s much to be done here. We need to identify and document digital alcohol marketing practices, and raise awareness among young people, policy makers and the general public. Alcohol companies should be held accountable for how their brands are used on social media, and media companies could stop accepting paid promotions and marketing for alcohol products [9].

Given the effects of digital alcohol marketing on current and new generations of drinkers, it might be time to think seriously about regulating the infrastructure. Dr Nicholas Carah argues that “media platforms are now significant public institutions that societies need to place certain responsibilities upon with regard to how they construct public space, culture and discourse” [10]. Additionally, alcohol and media corporations control vast datasets that could be highly beneficial for health and public good researchers. Unfortunately, we can’t access this information because it’s protected by the powerful vested interests that both platform owners and alcohol corporations have in retaining private ownership of data [11].

If alcohol marketing is a matter of public concern, this information should be open to public scrutiny.

In this video interview at the Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Melbourne, Professor Lyons further explores why and how the alcohol industry are reaching underage drinkers online.

[vimeo id=”237854371″]


  1. Goodwin, I., Griffin, C., Lyons, A., McCreanor, T., & Moewaka Barnes, H. (2016). Precarious popularity: Facebook drinking photos, the attention economy, and the regime of the branded self. Social Media + Society, 2(1), doi: 10.1177/2056305116628889.
  2. Johnson, L. (2015, 16 June). With better targeting, alcohol brands bet big on digital: Annual budgets increase as much as 50 percent. Retrieved 15 April 2016, from http://www.adweek.com/news/technology/better-targeting-alcohol-brands-bet-big-digital-165357
  3. De Bruijn, A., Engels, R., Anderson, P., Bujalski, M., Gosselt, J., Schreckenberg, D., Wohtge, J., & De Leeuw, R. (2016). Exposure to online alcohol marketing and adolescents’ drinking: A cross-sectional study in four European countries. Alcohol and Alcoholism, First published online: 5 May, http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agw1020.
  4. Nicholls, J. (2012). Everyday, everywhere: Alcohol marketing and social media—current trends. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 47(4), 486-493.
  5. Winpenny, E., Marteau, T., & Nolte, E. (2014). Exposure of children and adolescents to alcohol marketing on social media websites. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 49(2), 154-159.
  6. Critchlow, N., Moodie, C., Bauld, L., Bonner, A., & Hastings, G. (2016). Awareness of, and participation with, digital alcohol marketing, and the association with frequency of high episodic drinking among young adults. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 23(4), 328-336.
  7. Anderson, P., de Bruijn, A., Angus, K., Gordon, R., & Hastings, G. (2009). Impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on adolescent alcohol use: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 44(3), 229-243.
  8. C. Lyons, T. McCreanor, I. Goodwin & H. Moewaka Barnes (Eds.). (2017). Youth drinking cultures in a digital world: Alcohol, social media and cultures of intoxication. Abingdon UK: Routledge.
  9. Mart, S. (2017). New marketing, new policy? Emerging debates over regulating alcohol campaigns in social media. In A. C. Lyons, T. McCreanor, I. Goodwin & H. Moewaka Barnes (Eds.), Youth drinking cultures in a digital world: Alcohol, social media and cultures of intoxication (pp.218-229). Abingdon UK: Routledge.
  10. Carah, N. (2017). Alcohol corporations and marketing in social media. In A. C. Lyons, T. McCreanor, I. Goodwin & H. Moewaka Barnes (Eds.), Youth drinking cultures in a digital world: Alcohol, social media and cultures of intoxication (pp.115-131). Abingdon UK: Routledge.
  11. McCreanor, T., Moewaka Barnes, H., Lyons, A.C. & Goodwin, I. (2017). Digital alcohol marketing and the public good: Industry, research and ethics. In A. C. Lyons, T. McCreanor, I. Goodwin & H. Moewaka Barnes (Eds.), Youth drinking cultures in a digital world: Alcohol, social media and cultures of intoxication (pp.230-241). Abingdon UK: Routledge.

Antonia Lyons

Antonia Lyons is a Professor of Psychology at Massey University’s School of Psychology, where she coordinates the Health Psychology Masters programme. Antonia's research explores the social, cultural and mediated contexts of behaviours related to health, including the role that social media play in drinking cultures. Antonia is currently co-editor of the journal Qualitative Research in Psychology, and serves as an Associate Editor for Health Psychology Review and Psychology and Health. She also is co-editor (with Professor Kerry Chamberlain) of the Routledge book series ‘Critical Approaches to Health’.

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