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 alcohol brands, retailers and venues. Yet, the promotion, advertising and retail happening on these platforms remains unregulated and opaque.
Since the early 2000s, we have witnessed a continuous innovation in marketing tactics on social and digital media, from inviting consumers to create, comment, like and share advertising, to partnering with influencers, to creating augmented reality filters and shifting to ephemeral video stories that disappear shortly after users have viewed them.
Below this constant innovation in formats, we can discern the maturing of a highly sophisticated marketing apparatus.
The marketing model of social and digital media platforms turns our everyday social relationships, behaviours and expressions into data. Those data are used to train algorithmic models that target us at particular locations and times of the day, to respond to what we’ve been doing and what we’ve been chatting about.
This targeted advertising is becoming fully integrated with on-demand digital retail, which can see alcohol delivered into homes in under an hour. Already, most of the alcohol ads we see on digital platforms have “buy” and “shop now” buttons. Digital advertisements have become the fridge door at the bottle shop or bar.
Alcohol marketers are creating a frictionless system for promoting and distributing alcohol via digital platforms. Recently, Endeavour Group invested $35 million in an EndeavourX initiative to develop the next generation of their digital infrastructure to join up targeted advertising with their retail after “online sales grew $603 million in just six months”.
As nightlife precincts, bars and big box retailers reach their saturation point in our cities, the alcohol industry is looking for new opportunities. The next wave of growth comes from integrating on-demand distribution into our homes – to do with alcohol what Netflix did with cinema and television.
Andy Sutton, Endeavour Group head of data and personalisation was quoted as saying at the time that the company now targets its audience segmentation more closely, by “distinguishing between premium, mainstream and budget customers”.
At the very moment that the alcohol industry and digital platforms are creating this new form of alcohol market, they are becoming less accountable to the public. The paradox of the past decade is that while customers – us – have become more visible than ever to marketers, their activities have become far less visible to us.
You’ve been feeling under the weather lately, you’ve been stressed, anxious, out of energy, and you haven’t been sleeping well. You decide it’s time to reduce your weekly alcohol use because you know that it is making you feel that much worse. At the same time that you are seeking support to reduce your alcohol use, alcohol companies are sending you individually targeted advertisements for your favourite alcoholic product. Alcohol companies find you on your Facebook and Instagram with ads prompting you to buy now, offering alcohol delivery within the hour and free delivery if you buy multiple bottles. These advertisements always seem to come at the moments you are wanting to drink alcohol and to know what alcoholic products you prefer and how much you are willing to pay.
This kind of advertising is the product of an algorithmic model feeding on our intimate lives: our searches online, posts on our social media accounts, and previous purchases. The models are designed to respond to our individual characteristics, interests and behaviours to enhance our susceptibility to the advertising. The ability for alcohol companies to target an individual with alcohol marketing directly to the palm of their hand through their digital devices with alcohol advertising most likely to appeal to them means it is near impossible for people wanting to reduce their alcohol use to escape this pervasive marketing.
The extensive information accessed for digital marketing can be joined together because of the deep integration between digital platforms and alcohol companies. Alcohol companies share their website data through to a platform, the platform generates “custom” audiences made up of the alcohol companies’ existing customers, and then the platform develops “look-alike” audiences of potential new customers who have similar characteristics to the alcohol companies’ most valuable existing customers (ie, people who make more frequent purchases or spend large amounts on alcoholic products). They then target this audience with advertisements for the alcohol company. To ensure the content of the ads are most likely to resonate with a person, “dynamic” ads are used, tailoring the sales promotion, price and product in the ad automatically based on a person’s previous searches, shopping and browsing activities.
Although these moments are entirely routine and ordinary now, and many notice them but don’t remark upon them anymore, they are entirely impervious to public scrutiny.
This is a problem because most of our regulatory and policy frameworks are built 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 on children and young people, enabling companies to develop intimate insights into their lives – all so they can target them with marketing. Social media platforms tag children and young people as interested in alcohol, priming them to be targeted with alcohol marketing.
Public health researchers have developed a strong evidence base about the harmful effects of advertising on young people, with research showing that children’s exposure to marketing by alcohol companies increases the likelihood that they will start drinking alcohol earlier and to drink at risky levels. Research has similarly found engagement with digital alcohol marketing to increase risky alcohol use. However, there remains a need to understand the emerging tactics used by alcohol marketers on digital media and the ways in which young people are now active participants in the process of alcohol promotion.
In collaboration with the University of Queensland, our current 3-year study aims to monitor the digital marketing of alcohol in two ways.
Using computational methods we aim to collect from platforms as many examples of alcohol marketing as we can to illustrate the volume and type of advertising brands, retailers and venues are producing.
Already we are tracking alcohol marketing from over 480 brands, retailers and venues on the Meta ecosystem – Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.
However, due to limited transparency of the algorithms used to target people with alcohol advertising, we are limited in our ways to deduct who is seeing these ads and based on what data.
Furthermore, many forms of advertising remain completely hidden from view – platforms such as Google and TikTok are entirely unaccountable. Only the people targeted with ads see them. Given platforms refuse to provide this type of information, we will recruit a small group of young Australians to help us track and understand this invisible marketing.
This will also enable us to understand how alcohol marketing is showing up in their everyday lives and how it is connected to their identities, social relationships and interests.
If they are going to be a key part of the apparatus of promoting and distributing harmful products such as alcohol, then digital platforms need to be accountable to the public.
Our project received $530 000 in funding, with $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.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.