Advertising regulation needs strengthening to better regulate alcohol marketing on social media, new research finds

New research published today (18 July 2018) shows the significant role that drinking venues and alcohol brands play in marketing alcohol products to young people on social media. The report highlights how the regulatory system for alcohol marketing (under the UK advertising Codes of Practice regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority) is struggling to keep up with the pace and nature of technological change and needs to be strengthened – taking particular account of marketing by venues as well as brands – to reflect the central role of social media activity in young people’s drinking occasions.

The report, ‘All night long: Social media marketing to young people by alcohol brands and venues’, from the University of Bath and the University of Birmingham, funded by us, is the first piece of research to analyse online alcohol marketing aimed at young people in the UK by bars and clubs as well as by alcohol brands.

The recent expansion of social media use among under-25s has created unprecedented opportunities for the marketing of alcohol products, especially with the emergence of more interactive platforms.

The report finds that:

  • Alcohol brands were more popular on social media among younger (including those under the legal drinking age) participants, and less popular among older participants. A majority of under-18s followed social media marketing by alcohol brands, and a minority also followed bars and clubs despite being too young to enter such premises legally.
  • Respondents aged 18-25 were more likely to follow local venues on social media than major alcohol brands. They did so not only to plan drinking occasions but, in some cases, to document them. Images associating alcohol with social success, sexual attractiveness and intoxication were found to be more common in marketing by venues than brands.
  • Responsible drinking messages were completely absent from marketing by venues, and were only included in a tiny proportion (2%) of posts by brands.

Professor Isabelle Szmigin, from the University of Birmingham and co-author of the study, said:

“We need to recognise that social media is markedly different to other forms of advertising, it is more focused in its targeting and more transient. The traditional form of reactive complaint process is no longer sufficient.”

Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of the new charity formed by the merger of Alcohol Research UK and Alcohol Concern, said:

“Social media marketing plays a significant role in reinforcing our problematic drinking culture. We need a more responsive and more effective regulatory system, that protects young people.

“The current regulatory system is not fit for purpose and we need a comprehensive review that fully addresses the significant challenges that digital marketing brings. In particular, the regulation of alcohol marketing must have statutory accountability.

“Alcohol marketing regulation should form part of the Government’s new national alcohol strategy, which we hope will reduce the significant harm caused by alcohol in the UK. We need a fully joined up approach to alcohol that’s fit for the digital age.”

The new research report ‘All night long: Social media marketing to young people by alcohol brands and venues’ is available here.

Ends.

Notes to Editors

1. Alcohol marketing is regulated by a mix of regulatory bodies in the UK.

  • The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) regulates alcohol marketing across all non-broadcast media (including newspapers, posters, websites, social media, cinema, emails, leaflets, billboards) through a self-regulatory system. The ASA and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) also regulates the content of broadcast (TV and radio) ads under a co-regulatory system under contract from Ofcom.
  • The Portman Group, through its Complaints Panel’s Code of Practice, is the self-regulatory body responsible for the naming, packaging, marketing and promotional activity of alcohol products which is marketed for sale and consumption in the UK, but only where that activity is not already overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) or Ofcom.
  • Statutory regulator Ofcom is responsible for alcohol industry sponsorship of television programmes.

2. In our recent report, Fit for Purpose? An analysis of the role of the Portman Group in alcohol industry self-regulation, Alcohol Concern/Alcohol Research UK has called for a comprehensive review of the way in which alcohol marketing is regulated in the UK with a view to creating a joined-up system that is more effective and evidence-based, and works in the interest of consumers.

3. The University of Bath is one of the UK’s leading universities both in terms of research and our reputation for excellence in teaching, learning and graduate prospects. The University is rated Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the Government’s assessment of teaching quality in universities, meaning its teaching is of the highest quality in the UK.

4. The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.

5. Alcohol Research UK and Alcohol Concern merged in April 2017 to form a major independent national charity, working to reduce the harms caused by alcohol.