Jen Draper, head of marketing at Global Brands, looks at why the age-appropriate debate is growing old.

Social media continues to be a major talking point for alcohol brands and retailers, especially around the topic of age-appropriateness.

This is an important subject and it is necessary for social media marketing to be responsible. However, the questions raised around age and alcohol marketing often seem to be misdirected and the industry is missing opportunities to better protect the public and companies. 

An age-old debate

Just in the last few weeks alone, I saw research published that called for alcohol advertising checks to focus more on social media. This was based on an academic study that analysed social media posts by five alcohol brands, along with interviews with 53 people aged above and below 18 years. 

The research found alcohol brands on social media were more popular among younger drinkers, including those under 18 years of age. 

There’s no question that people under the legal drinking age shouldn’t be engaging with alcohol-related content. This does need addressing and I welcome measures that help promote responsible marketing and drinking. 

What is frustrating is the study recognises how social media is markedly different to other forms of advertising as it is more focused in its targeting and more transient, and yet the outcomes of the study fail to positively consider what this could mean. 

Instead, like much research and opinion on this matter, the outcome automatically shifts to more restrictions as the answer. It is for this very reason that the age and alcohol marketing debate needs to move on and regulations made fit-for-purpose.

Rather than simply championing calls for tighter checks, it would be more constructive to look at how the targeted and transient nature of social media can be embraced to engage people of the legal drinking age. By default, this would help to reduce inadvertent alcohol marketing among people under 18 years old. 

Being age-appropriate 

The reality is that people aged 18 – 24 years old constitute a significant number of social media users and are people that legally buy alcohol. Current advertising regulations don’t allow for this and instead impose rules about people in social media marketing not appearing under the age of 25.

One of our largest markets for RTD beverage VK is students. The majority fall into the 18 – 22 years age bracket. It seems more practical and effective if we could target this age group with content appropriately featuring people of a similar age to them i.e. people in the adverts that the audience can relate to. This, along with the targeted and transient nature of social media, means it’s more likely that the content would then connect with the desired age group.  

The research study, although only just reported in national media, was also completed in May and June 2016. It featured a relatively small sample of analysed posts (419) and interviews with just 53 people. The sample size doesn’t seem representative when according to the ONS, 66% of adults use the internet for social media. 

It’s also important to consider how quickly social media platforms evolve and how this changes user behaviour and brand marketing. What was happening two years ago is likely to be very dated. 

Collaborating and constructive change  

If alcohol brands and retailers were actively involved in such studies, more informative insight about social media marketing could be shared. This could include data that shows how users are engaging with content and be supported by conversations with a larger group of customers to provide more representative views from the people buying alcohol products. 

It is also important to involve the social media platforms, which are increasingly making moves to improve data management and protect user interests.  

Taking a more collaborative approach across the industry and focusing on what really defines responsible age appropriate alcohol marketing, as opposed to simply calling for more checks or regulation, would make marketing efforts more relevant. This would mean content is more likely to reach the age groups it is intended for.