FOR nearly 20 years, alcohol marketers have been at the forefront of using digital and social media platforms to promote and distribute alcohol. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok are part of the marketing machinery of liquor brands, retailers and places. Yet the promotion, advertising and retail that takes place on these platforms remains unregulated and opaque.
Since the early 2000s, we have witnessed continued innovation in social and digital media marketing tactics, from inviting consumers to create, comment, like and share advertising, to partnering with influencers, creating augmented reality filters, and moving to short-lived video stories that disappear shortly after users view them.
Behind this constant innovation of formats, one can discern the maturation of a very sophisticated marketing apparatus.
The marketing model of social media and digital platforms transforms our daily social relationships, behaviors and expressions into data. This data is used to train algorithmic models that target us at particular places and times of day, to respond to what we did and discussed.
This targeted advertising is increasingly being integrated with on-demand digital retail, which can see alcohol delivered to your doorstep in less than an hour. Already, most of the alcohol ads we see on digital platforms have “buy” and “buy now” buttons. Digital ads have become the refrigerator door of the bottle shop or bar.
Alcohol marketers are creating a frictionless system to promote and distribute alcohol through digital platforms. Recently, Endeavor Group has invested $35 million in an EndeavourX initiative to build the next generation of their digital infrastructure to bring targeted advertising to their retail business after “online sales grew by $603 million in just six months.”
As nightlife spots, bars and big box stores reach saturation point in our cities, the alcohol industry is looking for new opportunities. The next wave of growth comes from integrating on-demand delivery into our homes – to do with alcohol what Netflix has done with film and television.
Andy Sutton, head of data and personalization at Endeavor Group, reportedly said at the time that the company was now targeting its audience segmentation more closely, “separating between premium, mainstream and budget customers”.
Even as the alcohol industry and digital platforms create this new form of alcohol market, they become less accountable to the public. The paradox of the past decade is that while customers – us – have become more visible to marketers than ever before, their businesses have become much less visible to us.
You’ve been feeling bad lately, you’ve been stressed, anxious, low on energy and haven’t slept well. You decide it’s time to cut back on your weekly alcohol intake because you know you’re feeling even worse. At the same time that you seek help to reduce your alcohol consumption, alcohol companies send you individually targeted advertisements for your favorite alcoholic product. Liquor companies find you on your Facebook and Instagram with ads urging you to buy now, offering liquor delivery within the hour, and free shipping if you buy multiple bottles. These ads always seem to come when you want to drink alcohol and find out which alcoholic products you prefer and how much you are willing to pay.
This type of advertising is the product of an algorithmic model that feeds on our intimate lives: our online searches, posts on our social media accounts and previous purchases. The models are designed to respond to our individual characteristics, interests and behaviors to enhance our awareness of advertising. The ability for alcohol companies to target an individual with alcohol marketing directly to the palm of their hand through their digital devices, alcohol advertising being the most likely to interest them, means that it is almost impossible for people wishing to reduce their alcohol consumption to escape this ubiquitous marketing. .
The vast amount of information accessible for digital marketing can be aggregated due to the deep integration between digital platforms and alcohol companies. Liquor companies share their website data through a platform, the platform generates “tailored” audiences made up of the liquor companies’ existing customers, then the platform develops “lookalike” audiences of potential new customers who have characteristics similar to alcohol. the businesses’ most valuable existing customers (i.e. people who make more frequent purchases or spend large amounts of money on alcoholic products). They then target that audience with advertisements for the liquor company. To ensure that the content of advertisements is most likely to resonate with a person, “dynamic” advertisements are used, automatically adapting the sales promotion, price and product in the advertisement based on searches. history, purchases and browsing activities of a person.
While these moments are entirely routine and ordinary now, and many notice them but no longer notice them, they are utterly immune to public scrutiny.
This is a problem because most of our regulatory frameworks and policies are based on the assumption that marketing can be monitored – that it is accountable to independent scrutiny.
These marketing tactics extend beyond the adult population to children and young people. Social media platforms collect millions of data points about children and young people, allowing companies to develop intimate insights into their lives – all so they can target them with marketing. Social media platforms mark children and young people as interested in alcohol, leading them to be targeted by alcohol marketing.
Public health researchers have developed a strong evidence base on the harmful effects of advertising on young people, with research showing that children’s exposure to alcohol company marketing increases the likelihood that they will start drinking alcohol earlier and drink at risky levels. The search also found engagement with digital alcohol marketing to increase risky drinking. However, there remains a need to understand the emerging tactics used by alcohol marketers on digital media and how young people are now actively participating in the alcohol promotion process.
In collaboration with the University of Queensland, our current 3-year study aims to monitor digital alcohol marketing in two ways.
Using computational methods, we seek to collect as many examples of alcohol marketing from platforms as possible to illustrate the volume and type of advertising that brands, retailers and places produce.
We already track alcohol marketing from over 480 brands, retailers and locations on the Meta ecosystem – Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.
However, due to the limited transparency of the algorithms used to target people with alcohol advertisements, we are limited in our means of inferring who sees these advertisements and based on what data.
Moreover, many forms of advertising remain completely hidden – platforms such as Google and TikTok are totally irresponsible. Only the people targeted by the advertisements see them. Since the platforms refuse to provide this type of information, we will be recruiting a small group of young Australians to help us track and understand this invisible marketing.
It will also allow us to understand how alcohol marketing manifests itself in their daily lives and how it relates to their identity, social relationships and interests.
If they are to be a key part of the apparatus for promoting and distributing harmful products such as alcohol, digital platforms must be accountable to the public.
Our project received funding of $530,000, including $265,000 from the Australian Research Council.
Associate Professor Nicholas Carah is Director of the Digital Cultures and Societies Hub in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland.
Dr. Aimee Brownbill is Senior Policy and Research Advisor for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.
Statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of WADA, the MJA or Preview+ unless otherwise stated.