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 Table of Contents  
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Year : 2015  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 22-27

Misuse of social media marketing by alcohol companies


Department of Community Medicine, Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, India

Date of Web Publication8-Sep-2015

Correspondence Address:
Zakirhusain A Shaikh
Department of Community Medicine, Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi
India
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/0971-8990.164805

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  Abstract 

Background and Aims: Epidemiological transition in the form of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) now becoming the main cause of mortality and morbidity is very much evident even in developing countries like India. Alcohol is an important risk factor for NCD. The use of alcohol is increasing especially in young people and women. This increased use can be attributed to aggressive and innovative marketing by alcohol, in spite of and due to restrictions on its marketing. Social media, in recent times, has been misused by alcohol companies for marketing their products legally, due to legal loophole. The present study examined the reach of alcohol companies on social media and the marketing strategies used by them. Design, Settings, Participants: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were explored for accounts and content by alcohol companies for marketing their product. Policies of social media sites pertaining to alcohol marketing were also studied. Measurements: Alcohol marketing was measured in terms of content posted by alcohol companies, use of direct or surrogate advertisement and engagement with users. Findings: Alcohol companies have been conveniently using social media to target young urban population with direct and surrogate advertisements of their products. Current social media policies and laws are ineffective in controlling it. Conclusions: Amendment of laws pertaining to alcohol marketing to include social media also in its ambit is necessary. Social media sites should revise their policies to prevent alcohol marketing and promotion especially to underaged users.

Keywords: Alcohol, Facebook, social media marketing, Twitter, YouTube


How to cite this article:
Shaikh ZA, Pathak R, Kapilashrami M C. Misuse of social media marketing by alcohol companies. J Mental Health Hum Behav 2015;20:22-7

How to cite this URL:
Shaikh ZA, Pathak R, Kapilashrami M C. Misuse of social media marketing by alcohol companies. J Mental Health Hum Behav [serial online] 2015 [cited 2019 Jan 20];20:22-7. Available from: http://www.jmhhb.org/text.asp?2015/20/1/22/164805


  Introduction Top


The world is facing an increasing threat of noncommunicable diseases (NCD). A very important cause of NCD is the harmful use of alcohol. The association between youth and harmful use alcohol needs no emphasis. Furthermore, with increasing access by young people to Internet and social media, and through them their exposure to alcohol advertising, it is imperative to study the marketing strategies used by the alcohol companies and to counter them through necessary policy changes.

Alcohol is an important risk factor for noncommunicable diseases

NCD kill more than 36 million people each year. Nearly 80% of NCD deaths, that is, 29 million deaths occur in low and middle-income countries like India. Harmful drinking leads to 2.3 million deaths annually, half of them due to NCDs. [1] Cancers figure among the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012. A substantial number of cancers are due to alcohol use. [2] Alcohol contributes to more than 60 types of disease and injury. Besides the direct loss of health due to alcohol addiction, alcohol is responsible for approximately 20% of deaths due to motor vehicle accidents, 30% of deaths due to esophageal cancer, liver cancer, epilepsy and homicide, and 50% of deaths due to liver cirrhosis. [3] The major individual harms related to alcohol are coronary heart disease, breast cancer, tuberculosis, motor vehicle accidents, liver cirrhosis and suicide. [4] According to the global burden of disease report, 2010, alcohol accounted for 4.9 million deaths and 5.5% of global disability-adjusted life years in 2010. For people aged 15-49 years, the leading risk factor for global disease burden worldwide is alcohol use. [5]

Association between alcohol marketing and alcohol use

Exposure to alcohol marketing has been identified as a factor that may lead to underage alcohol consumption. [6] An increasing and threatening aspect of alcohol advertising is its promotion through social media.

Alcohol use

Alcohol use in India has registered a steady growth rate of 10-15% each year in the past decade. [7] Traditionally, in India, alcohol consumption has been low, but recently, the consumption levels have increased as a result of expansion in commercial production and marketing campaigns by the alcohol industry. [8] About 23.7% Indian men consume alcohol, with one-third consuming daily. [9] The average age of initiation of alcohol use has reduced from 28 years during the 1980s to 17 years in 2007. [10] What is worrying is that people are beginning to drink at increasingly younger ages. The percentage of the drinking population aged <21 years has increased from 2% to more than 14% in the past 15 years. [11]

Alcohol marketing strategies

The industry is consistently launching new products, such as flavored alcoholic drinks, to attract the nondrinkers in this group. [12]

This is a favorable time for the alcohol industry in India due to the following factors: [13]

Urbanization

This is leading to more exposure to a wide variety of alcoholic products.

More youth population

In India, 46% of the people are in the age group of 15-45 years; [14] the age group most targeted by alcohol companies.

Increasing social acceptability

In the last decade, there has been a change in attitudes, making consumption of alcohol more socially acceptable. This acceptability extends to drinking in family environments, at social events, and by females/youngsters.

Rise in disposable income

More and more Indians are now moving toward the upper/middle-income group. This rise in disposable income can lead to more expenditure on alcohol.

Increased alcohol accessibility and availability

There has been an increase in the variety of alcohol brands and types, and all of them are easily available.

As evidence suggests, exposure to alcohol advertising and promotion increases the likelihood of people (especially young people in impressionable age groups) initiating drinking or increasing their consumption of alcoholic products. [15]

Alcohol laws in India

The alcohol law in India is well-defined regarding sale and consumption of alcohol. The laws vary from state to state. Alcohol is prohibited in the states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Gujarat and in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep.

Legal drinking age

The legal drinking ages in India vary between 18 years and 25 years. In Maharashtra, Haryana and Meghalaya, the legal drinking age for beer is 18 years while that for high-alcohol content drinks such as vodka, rum, and whisky is 25 years. On the other hand, in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the legal drinking age is 21 years. Goa, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, have it at just 18 years.

Television advertisement of alcohol

Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2000, the Advertising Codes of Doordarshan, and the All India Radio and Norms for Journalist Conduct issued by the Press Council of India prohibit any advertisement directly or indirectly promoting the production, sale, or consumption of wine, liquor, or other intoxicants. The Press Council of India too strictly bars any advertisement that promotes directly or indirectly production, sale or consumption of wine, alcohol, liquor, and other intoxicants. The Advertising Standard Council of India too has laid down specific rules and guidelines prohibiting direct and surrogate advertising of alcohol.

Similarly, the following are also legally forbidden:

  • Alcohol industry sponsorship of sporting events
  • Alcohol industry sponsorship of youth events
  • Sales promotion in the form of serving free alcohol
  • Sales promotion in the form of sales below cost.


However, some states allow points of sale advertising.

Though the use of media like television, radio, newspapers, etc., for the promotion of alcohol is not allowed, the law is silent on the use of social media. This is used as an opportunity by the alcohol companies to legally market their brand on social media sites in innovative, and consumer demographics focused manner.

Thus, the present study endeavors to expose the use of social media by alcohol companies for marketing their brand. Apart from studying the reach of alcohol companies on various social media platforms and marketing strategies used by them, it also critically reviews the advertising and content policies of social media sites. This can help in identifying loopholes, as well as help in studying policy versus real situation. These findings can then lead to better monitoring and reinforcement of social media sites to prevent exposure of vulnerable groups to alcohol marketing. In the long run, it would act as an advocate for amendment of existing alcohol advertisement laws to prevent misuse of social media. Very few studies have been conducted in India to assess the presence and reach of alcohol companies via social media sites. With Internet-based content becoming an ever-increasing and inseparable part of our lives, this study is unique and essential.


  Methods Top


In this study, done between May and September 2014, we selected major social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. An account was opened in these social media sites, followed by a search for the accounts/pages/groups opened by alcohol companies in these sites. All known brands of alcohol, especially the ones available in India were searched for. Once an account or content created by the account was found, observations and analysis were done for the quantity and the type of content posted, especially direct and indirect advertisements. Social media site-specific data, which is available to a viewer was obtained and analyzed.

Similarly, we explored the policies pertaining to alcohol advertising of these social media sites and some other IT companies.

This was a completely observational, internet-based study; no direct personal interactions were done with the administrators of page/group/account of an alcohol company or the social media users who have subscribed to these accounts. Hence, no approval was required from Ethics Committee.


  Results Top


Policies of various social media sites regarding advertisement of alcohol and tobacco

As part of this study, we did a content analysis of the policies of selected social media sites. The parts of policies dealing with alcohol marketing are mentioned below as it is, with critical review.



Date of last revision: October 22, 2013

The Facebook policy speaks only about paid Facebook advertising and not about the content posted by users on their individual accounts or groups or pages. This study has found that there is ample content posted by alcohol companies on their Facebook accounts, which is apparently not specifically governed or prohibited under any Facebook policy.

Besides, any person aged 13 years or more can open account a Facebook account, which means that children <18 years of age are also potentially exposed to the content pertaining to alcohol, as currently there is no age screening for content of groups or pages. Furthermore, children <13 years may have also opened their account illegally and there is no provision to keep a check on that.



YouTube and Google Plus are two social media properties by Google. Though the Google speaks about advertisement of alcohol, it doesn't speak about the posting of content pertaining to alcohol. YouTube, which was included in this study was found to have accounts by alcohol companies with videos marketing alcohol brands. Also, none of these videos were marked as unsuitable for a child, which means that a child of any age would have access to these videos. Even if a video is marked as unsuitable for children, it can be watched by signing to confirm age (which may have been falsely mentioned).



It is not explicitly mentioned what kind of restrictions are put in place for alcohol products. Also, it doesn't guide the users on policy content. Many alcohol brands have their accounts on Twitter and are using this platform for marketing purposes. Twitter has initiated age screening for content on beta mode (experimental mode); this needs to be made universal.



We did not study any social media site by Yahoo, but its policies have same features and deficiencies as most of the other companies.



Though we did not study any social media by Microsoft in the present study, its policy appears to be the most thorough with reference to alcohol advertising.

An analysis of Indian alcohol policy and policies of various social media suggests several loopholes. There is no central uniform policy regarding alcohol. As a result, while in some states there is a summary prohibition on alcohol, in another states, the legal age of drinking is only at 18 years. The laws regarding the advertisement of alcohol do not cover adequately the modern media like social media and mobile applications. The alcohol policies of social media are vague and do not have adequate and stringent provisions. Besides, their policies mostly deal with alcohol advertising and not user-generated alcohol-related promotional content.

Content analysis for social media marketing of alcohol

Brands of alcohol were analyzed for social media marketing through selected social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Twenty-six such brands were identified as below: 8pm, Bacardi, Bagpiper, Black Label, Blenders Pride, Budweiser, Fosters, Hayward's 5000, Heineken, Johnnie Walker, Kingfisher, London Dry, London Pilsner, McDowell's No. 1, Officer's Choice, Old Admiral, Old Monk, Red Romanov, Royal Challenge, Royal Stag, Rum Contessa, Smirnoff, Tuborg, Vat 69, White Mischief, Whyte And McKay.

Alcohol marketing on Facebook

All 26 brands of alcohol mentioned above were having their presence on Facebook through the creation of "Pages." These "Pages" have "Likes" (which means that a Facebook user has liked it and favored it) ranging from 14 to 17.7 million, with a median of 121,100.

Heineken with more than 17 million "Likes" was the topper. The brands with most "Likes" are summarized in [Table 1].
Table 1: Brands with most "Likes" on Facebook


Click here to view


These "Pages" were most popular amongst the youth. While 12 "Pages" were most popular in the age group of 18-24 years, another 12 "Pages" were found to be most popular in the age group of 25-34 years. This information was not available for two "Pages."

These "Pages" were most popular in the Indian cities of New Delhi (8 "Pages") and Kolkata (5 "Pages"). One "Page" each had the most popular city/country as Mumbai, Bangalore, Athens, Dhaka, Iran, Moscow and Madrid. No such information was available for 6 "Pages."
"The number of people talking about" these "Pages" ranged from 0 to 540,000, with a median of 358.
"The number of people talking about" is the actual number of people who are "engaged" and interacting with that Facebook page; the people who actually come back to the page after liking the page. This includes activities such as comments, likes to a post, shares, etc., by visitors to the page and indicates active engagement of the user with the "Page."

Johnnie Walker had the most "number of people talking about" with 540,000 people talking about it on Facebook. [Table 2] summarizes the brands with most "number of people talking about" 21 "Pages" out of 26 engaged in the direct advertisement of their products.
Table 2: Brands with most "number of people talking about" them


Click here to view


Similarly, 18 "Pages" out of 26 used surrogate advertisements.

Types of surrogate advertisements included adventure sports, bravery awards, cheerleading, cocktail competition, competitive games, real-life adventures, energy drink, fashion, malt drink, music events, Cricket - IPL, soda, sports, karaoke, of which most popular modes were sports (10 "Pages") and music (4 "Pages").

Alcohol marketing on Twitter

Fourteen brands of alcohol were identified to have their presence on Twitter. These are as below:

Bacardi, Blenders Pride, Budweiser, Fosters, Heineken, Johnnie Walker, Kingfisher, London Dry, McDowell's No. 1, Royal Challenge, Smirnoff, Tuborg, White Mischief, Whyte, and Mckay.

These alcoholic brands' accounts on Twitter had "Followers" ranging from 195 to 92,000, with a median of 12,293.

The "Followers" are individual accounts, which have selected to "Follow" a particular Twitter account and thus receive its tweets (messages) directly.

Heineken had the most number of "Followers" with 92,000 "following" it's tweets.

The "Twitter accounts" with a maximum number of "Followers" are summarized in [Table 3].
Table 3: Brands with most number of Twitter "Followers"


Click here to view


The "Tweets" made by these accounts ranged from 114 to 22,300 with a median of 2,809. A "Tweet" is an individual short message given out by a Twitter account holder.

Seven "Twitter accounts" had in place an age limit, out of which three had specified it to be 21 years + while four accounts had not specified the exact age limit. The remaining seven accounts had no age limit in place.

Ten "Twitter accounts" engaged in direct advertisement of their alcoholic brands while four did not.

The surrogate advertisement was used by 11 "Twitter account" while three desisted from it. Types of surrogate advertisements used included fashion tour, darts, music, pub games, cheerleading, bottled water, sports and mobile phone games, with sports and games (seven "Twitter accounts") being most popular strategy followed by music (two "Twitter accounts").

Alcohol marketing on YouTube

Twenty brands of alcohol were found to have their presence on YouTube. These brands are as follows:

8 pm, Bacardi, Black Label, Blenders Pride, Budweiser, Fosters, Haywards 5000, Heineken, Johnnie Walker, Kingfisher, McDowell's No. 1, Officer's Choice, Old Monk, Royal Challenge, Royal Stag, Smirnoff, Tuborg, Vat 69, White Mischief, Whyte, and Mckay.

The number of videos posted by these "YouTube accounts" ranged from 1 to 188, with a median of 42. Heineken again topped with a most number of videos posted, with 188 videos. Brands with most videos posted are summarized in [Table 4].
Table 4: Brands with most videos posted on YouTube


Click here to view


The "views" of these videos ranged from 243 to 76,797,621, with a median of 98,389 "views."

The YouTube accounts of these brands were "subscribed" by 15-77,628 YouTube users, with a median of 583. Once "subscribed" to a particular channel on YouTube, the user will be notified of any new video that is posted by the subscribed account.

YouTube has a mechanism of marking certain videos as unsuitable for viewing by minors, but in our study, we did not come across any video posted in the account of these alcohol brands, including the ones engaging in direct advertisement of alcohol, marked as unsuitable for viewing by minors.

Nine brands engaged in the direct advertisement of alcohol while 11 refrained from it. All 20 brands having their presence on YouTube engaged in surrogate advertisement, using advertisements for cookery show, bartending, music, cheerleading, malt beverage, soda, karaoke, fashion show, bravery awards, IPL, calendars and award shows, with most popular being sports and games (seven brands) and music (four brands).

On the basis of this online review, it is evident that the alcohol policies of the social media are inadequate. Besides, there is lots of promotion of alcohol taking place through the social media with Facebook being the most commonly used platform. This promotion is mostly targeted at young adults, including females, who are increasingly using social media to connect and share. There is ample use of both direct and surrogate advertising by the alcohol companies on social media.


  Discussion Top


Amongst the various social media platforms, the current study found that Facebook was the most popular platform, followed by YouTube and Twitter, for marketing of alcohol. Urban users were found to be most receptive to social media marketing of alcohol. Most of the audience of this social media marketing of alcohol was young population; some of them even legally under-aged to buy alcohol! What is worrying is that there is no effective mechanism to restrict the under-age viewers from accessing the "Pages"/information on social media pertaining to alcohol marketing. Even where such mechanisms are available, they are not adequately used. The strategy by alcohol companies, of attracting nondrinkers and youth to try and start drinking has been used since long, according to Jernigan and O'Hara in their book Alcohol Advertising and Promotion. [15] Similar results were obtained by Anderson et al. in their study impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on adolescent alcohol use: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. They concluded that exposure to media and commercial communications on alcohol is associated with the increased likelihood that adolescents will start to drink alcohol, and with increased drinking amongst baseline drinkers. [16] What is special about social media marketing is that, as against advertising through company-owned websites where there is only interaction between the brand and the consumer, in social media marketing, there is also interaction of consumers with each other. This can influence consumer decisions, as found in the study by Huang et al. They stated that exposure to risky online content regarding alcohol use had a direct impact on adolescents' risk behaviors and more importantly was influenced by friends' online behavior, which acted as a viable source of peer influence. [17]

In India, direct advertisement of alcohol is not permitted through any traditional media, but social media has escaped this, due no specific mention of it, in the laws related to alcohol marketing. Alcohol companies have taken advantage of this legal loophole and are misusing social media for marketing of alcohol. Similarly, the surrogate advertisement is being rampantly used on social media under the guise of music, sports, events, etc., This study highlighted through review of alcohol advertising policies of social media sites that policies of most of the sites deal with paid advertisements done by the alcohol companies on their sites. No specific guidelines are mentioned about creating pages or accounts by alcohol companies, fan pages by viewers, guidelines about posting contents, age restrictions and advertisements - direct or surrogate through these accounts.


  Recommendations Top


Based on the findings of the current study, the authors recommend that the existing laws about advertising of alcohol through media should be amended to include social media in its ambit. This action is needed at the level of government. At the level of social media sites, they should revise their policies to specifically include guidelines about opening of business and individual accounts to curtail the misuse of social media by alcohol companies. Further, they should ensure that all content pertaining to alcohol, even if legally allowed, should be age-restricted, with the minimum age limit of 21 years. Furthermore, no surrogate or direct advertisement should be allowed through these pages.

Financial support and sponsorship

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

 
  References Top

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    Tables

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4]


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