If you’re among the billions of people around the world who use social media every day, you know firsthand how saturated the social networking space is with alcohol-related content.
Whether it’s friends clinking glasses at happy hour in a Facebook photo or Tito’s Handmade Vodka tweeting a reminder that it’s “#TitosTuesday,” alcohol is prevalent in the digital world.
While this sort of content may appear harmless to the casual observer, research tells us otherwise. Studies show that posting alcohol-related content on social media is associated with high rates of alcohol consumption, cravings and alcohol addiction.
A growing body of research also suggests that these messages may be powerful enough to influence a person’s drinking habits.
“Seventy five percent of teens aged 12 to 17 claim that seeing pictures on social media depicting their friends and schoolmates drinking and using drugs motivated them to mimic the behaviors.”
That was the conclusion of Michigan State University researchers, who found that people who were shown Facebook ads promoting beer were more likely to indulge in an alcoholic beverage than those who viewed bottled water ads.
After viewing the Facebook ads, the 121 test subjects were given a choice between receiving a gift card for a coffee shop or a bar as compensation for their participation in the study. While 73 percent of those who saw the beer ads chose the bar gift certificate, only 55 percent of those who viewed water ads selected it.
Saleem Alhabash, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State who led the study, says the research shows that alcohol-related messaging on social media primes people to think about alcohol and that exposure to alcohol-related messages can influence people to drink.
It also raises important questions about how social media messages may promote underage drinking, he says.
Alcohol companies are some of the most prolific creators of content on social media. They have shifted much of their advertising budgets and focus to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in recent years.
According to a 2015 story in the advertising industry trade publication Adweek, alcohol brands are betting big on digital marketing. Pernod Ricard, the French company that owns Absolut Vodka, Jameson Irish Whiskey and a number of other prominent liquor brands, has increased its digital marketing budget by more than 50 percent every year over the past several years. Beer giant Heineken, meanwhile, has also significantly increased its digital advertising budget.
Alcohol companies are also getting creative in their efforts. In addition to posting fun and clever video content, many alcohol brands are also using contests, giveaways and games to gain new followers and sell more alcohol.
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, for example, conducts daily giveaways of “the Dragon’s swag” on its Twitter feed, which has more than 100,000 followers. Coors Brewing Company, meanwhile, has been promoting its Coors Light XP app, which allows consumers to earn “experience points” that they can cash in for rewards such as Coors Light gear and tickets to sporting events.
Points can be earned by entering codes from 12-packs and 15-packs of Coors Light, by posting Instagram photos with a special Coors hashtag, by playing trivia at locations where Coors Light is served and by sharing posts about the program with other Facebook friends.
While drinking in social situations isn’t a new cultural phenomenon, alcohol researchers are troubled because much of the content posted by alcohol companies on social media normalizes daily alcohol use and binge drinking.
In a 2016 interview with The Washington Post, David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, took issue with a Facebook ad for Smirnoff Ice.
The ad in question featured a stack of caps from four pint-sized bottles of the malt liquor along with the tagline “Know Your Limit.” But drinking four Smirnoff Ices is not responsible, Jernigan told the Post, and would actually be classified as hazardous drinking.
Alcohol companies are also increasingly targeting women with social media marketing content — a move that alcohol researchers say is dangerous. It appears to be contributing to a noticeable cultural shift that includes heavier and more frequent drinking among women.
Statistics show that heavy drinking among women is up 40 percent since 1997, and more than a million women are landing in emergency rooms each year because of alcohol poisoning.
Direct alcohol advertising isn’t the only way drinking is promoted on social media. Social media users do a lot of alcohol promotion of their own.
Friends organize happy hours and parties on Facebook, and they often document their partying on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other sites by posting photo and videos.
Teens who are regular users of social media are 3x more likely to drink alcohol.
Social media sites even feature alcohol-oriented communities where people can digitally connect to socialize. For example, a closed group on Facebook called Take me Drunk, I’m Home! has more than 3,500 members. It says the community is for “anyone who shares a common interest, has a kickass sense of humor, likes to drink, smoke, party.”
Viewing others’ alcohol-fueled antics also appears to be a popular form of entertainment on social media. Drunk People Doing Things, an online community that features photos and videos of drunken behavior and claims to be the “greatest collection of drunken behavior ever assembled,” has more than 720,000 Facebook followers and more than 2 million followers on Instagram.
Teens and young adults, the heaviest users of social media, appear to be particularly vulnerable to digital advertising for alcohol.
A study of more than 1,500 teens in New Zealand found that engagement with web-based alcohol marketing increased the odds of a young person drinking by 98 percent, whereas traditional marketing increased the chances by 51 percent.
Being a fan of a particular brand of alcohol had an even more profound impact. Brand allegiance was found to increase the odds of being an underage drinker by an astounding 356 percent — and it was also associated with more frequent and heavier alcohol consumption.
U.S. research has uncovered disturbing links between social media use and substance abuse. A 2011 survey by researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that teens who are regular users of social media are five times likelier to smoke, three times likelier to drink alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana compared to teens who don’t use social media.
Web-based alcohol marketing increased the odds of a young person drinking by 98 percent.
Nearly half of all teens surveyed also said they’d seen photos of kids drunk, passed out or high on drugs on Facebook or other social networking sites. Teens who viewed such images were three times more likely to drink alcohol, four times more likely to use marijuana and much likelier to have friends and classmates who abuse illegal and prescription drugs.
While alcohol companies are supposedly taking steps to prevent underage people from being exposed to their marketing efforts through an age verification process called “age-gating,” the process is far from foolproof. Underage people can easily circumvent screening measures by lying about their age or creating fake profiles.
“Eighty seven percent of parents don’t believe social media will increase the likelihood that their kid will drink.”
College students also appear to be susceptible to alcohol marketing on social media sites.
When researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Washington looked at the Facebook profiles of more than 300 undergrads at their respective schools, they found that those who posted about getting drunk, blacking out and engaging in other dangerous drinking habits were much more likely to have “clinically significant alcohol problems.”
For those in recovery, alcohol’s significant presence on social media can be especially troubling.
Hayles, a young tattoo shop owner from South Wales and former binge drinker, is now sober, but she told the BBC in a 2017 interview that she worries that the alcohol ads she sees on social media could trigger an alcohol relapse.
“Not only do I get told that it’s Friday night and it’s wine night for mum when the kids are in bed, I also get told I should be out drinking flavored vodka because that’s the only way I can go dancing,” she said.
Fortunately, there’s some good news for people like Hayles. In September 2017, social media giant Facebook began testing a tool that allows people to block alcohol-related advertisements from their feeds for six months, a year or permanently.
Alcohol researchers like Jernigan believe social media companies could do more to protect consumers — especially young ones — from the dangers of pro-alcohol messages. Facebook, he says, could put a more stringent age-verification process in place and do more to restrict underage people from accessing alcohol-related content.
He says Twitter should also collect age data when people sign up so the company can restrict access to alcohol brand pages to those who are of the legal drinking age. In addition, he suggested that YouTube should put an age limit on access to alcohol-related content.
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