FTC to Investigate Digital Marketing of Alcohol

By Chad Pilbeam | May 15, 2012 | 0 Comments |
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The social aspects of beer are well known and without question, but the social media of beer is a whole different story – especially to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The FTC, who has previously reviewed the traditional media and advertising of all alcohol while skimming the surface of digital media, is about to launch a head-on review of the industry’s internet-based marketing.

Long have the FTC and advocate groups argued that the alcohol industry has created characters and messages targeted at youth, but this was during an era of media outlets that were sans-digital; the review of online advertising and social media was ignored primarily because it didn’t exist.  But these mediums have not only been conceived, they have emerged from their infancy. 

The last time the FTC looked into the advertising practices of the alcohol industry was 2008.  Using data from 2005 they discovered that only 1.9% of the alcohol industry’s $3.3 billion marketing expense was dedicated to digital media.  It will come to no one’s surprise that this category has increased from seven years ago, and quite frankly, the amount is irrelevant.  What will be relevant is the percent change in dollars spent, the content of those messages, and the target age of the industry (whether actual audiences of “followers” are built on those efforts or not).

There are over 175 million tweets on Twitter and 2.5 billion “likes” on Facebook every day – giving both merit and leverage to the savvy brewing, distillery, and wine making advertiser.  As a result, the FTC is requiring 14 major alcoholic beverage producers to release information about their internet and digital marketing, including Anheuser-Busch.  The end goal – a report that may be completed by the end of this year to help determine future advertising rules for a medium that has long been overlooked by the commission.

Critics of the alcohol industry’s marketing efforts are likely cheering the initiative, which suggests that the FTC will provide recommendations on how the alcohol industry should regulate itself.

Johns Hopkins University public health specialist David Jernigan was quoted saying “The industry is innovating quickly, while the pace of regulation and monitoring has lagged.”

Sara Mart, research director for Alcohol Justice, an advocacy group that criticizes the alcohol industry’s “negative practices” said, “They’re everywhere. They’re blanketing online.”

While the impact of the study is going to be felt throughout the entire alcohol industry, brewers that utilize social media such as Twitter and Facebook to develop “communities” of followers and brand loyalists will be particularly interested in the recommendations made (I’m sure Tony Magee will have a few comments on Twitter).  And while the commission is limited in what it can do with the information collected (short of unfair or misleading advertising), if recommendations are not observed, the result is often negative publicity on behalf of advocacy groups that seek to restrict and even regulate or govern the marketing efforts of industries that produce products for adults only (i.e. alcohol and tobacco).

As can be expected, guidelines will recommend no content targeted to minors, but additional measures may require age verification and audiences of no less than 70% being of legal drinking age – this based on existing recommendations for traditional media.

In the spirit of the piece, you and the 50,000 other “likes” of the Beer Universe Facebook community can tell us, the brewing industry, and even the FTC what you think.  Share your comments.

Your Choice. Your Beer. Drink Up.
- Beer Universe

Chad Pilbeam is a staff writer for Beer Universe, you can follow him @beernbullcbo.

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