“Get drunk” reads a comment from a man named Jeffrey Dale Hoover Sr. on Coors Light’s Facebook page.
The dictate, needless to say, is not the sort of thing that an alcohol brand would want to promote, even though Hoover’s decree was entered on July 31 and, as of last week, was still on the site. Meanwhile, on Bud Light Lime’s page, a fan named Jim Lenz confesses, “I have a problem having just one.”
Such are the perils of social media marketing for purveyors of alcoholic beverages. Though, for some time now, brands have self-policed their sites by forcing visitors to enter their dates of birth in order to get past the outer wall, Facebook—and Twitter especially—seem to leave more doors ajar, allowing minors to wander into the boozy realms and messages such as Hoover’s to proliferate.
Not surprisingly, both the FTC and consumer watchdog groups are also looking closely at how marketers of alcohol brands are behaving on social media. “Facebook has some age barriers that are easily gotten around,” said Michele Simon, research and policy director of the Marin Institute, which keeps an eagle eye on the alcohol industry. Marin is calling for the removal of all promotional content posted on Facebook by alcohol companies.
Facebook’s policy is that all alcohol ads should be aimed at consumers whose registered birth dates put them in the legal drinking age. Facebook also bars such advertising from attempting to appeal to minors or show any stages of intoxication.
Despite those restrictions, FTC attorney Janet Evans—who oversees alcohol ads—said she regularly combs Facebook sites in search of minors who’ve lied about their ages.
The FTC is planning to release a report in early 2011 tallying the number of such instances. Evans said she favors live monitoring of alcohol-related fan pages by the companies themselves. “They need to take off pictures showing kids in frat T-shirts and delete messages about binge drinking,” she said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Marin Institute does not believe the FTC’s current monitoring is sufficient. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, booze advertising in other media is not monitored by the FTC; it’s left to the liquor brands to regulate themselves. When it comes to TV, the general rule is that the potential audience for the ad should not have more than 30 percent of its audience under the age of 21. But Marin’s Simon said that’s hardly an effective way to keep beer and liquor ads away from kids’ eyeballs. “Obviously, the [liquor brands are] not advertising on Nickelodeon,” she said. “But [the current standard] still overexposes the content of the ads.”
Likewise, the task of keeping minors away from regular beer and liquor Web sites is also entrusted to self-regulation. But Simon said that the enter-your-birth-date features can be easily cheated—even as alcohol advertisers, for their part, tend to view these filters as impediments to their marketing messages.
Meanwhile, another issue for Marin is Twitter, which does not require its users to enter a date of birth. Though some alcohol marketers, like Smirnoff, don’t put their own age limitations on Twitter, Julian Green, a rep for MillerCoors, said the company makes any potential followers enter their age and those under 21 are rejected. Said Green: “We’re taking baby steps to ensure that any engagement we do is responsible.”