Alcohol Industry Advertises to Children via Smartphones

Published On: January 25, 2016

A shocking new study in  Alcohol and Alcoholism by researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station reveals children as young as 13 are ‘bombarded’ with advertisements for alcohol via their ‘smartphones’.

These ads are mostly served up via social media.

Facebook-owned ‘Instagram’ is said to be the worst offender due to its lack of an effective ‘age-gate’ that normally blocks such ads from reaching underage users.

Many experts are shocked by this news, particularly given the ease in which social media firms can implement technology preventing underage users from receiving alcohol-related advertisements.

The US-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) says all its member’s digital marketing efforts are aimed at adults. DISCUS claims its members only advertise via online outlets where at least 71.6% of the audience is legally allowed to consume alcohol.  This is according to a ‘voluntary’ guideline agreed amongst its members.  

Twitter claims 91% of its users are over the age of 21 and Instagram claims 88% of its users are over the age of 21.

However, the study claims DISCUS is incorrect because many of its members do in fact engage people under the age of twenty-one on social media channels.

DISCUS defends its members saying these ‘voluntary guidelines’ are ‘more restrictive’ than official laws relating to the advertisement of alcohol to children.  DISCUS also says it has ‘encouraged’ Instagram to implement so-called ‘age-gating’ technology in the same vein as Twitter has already done so.

Currently, no law exists either side of the Atlantic preventing alcohol firms from advertising to people who are not yet old enough to legally consume alcohol.  However, the practice is routinely labelled as ‘immoral’ and ‘unethical’.

Adam E. Barry from the Texas A&M University in College Station said: “While it is not illegal to expose underage young persons to alcohol advertising/promotions, I believe it is unethical to intentionally expose underage persons to alcohol advertising given alcohol advertising influences the likelihood of whether or not a young person will initiate alcohol use, as well as how much existing drinkers consume.”

The study involved the setting up of ten Instagram accounts and ten Twitter accounts. Users were assigned various ages between 13 and 21.  The researchers then attempted to engage with alcohol brands’ profile on these social channels. This includes ‘following’ breweries’ social accounts and ‘sharing’ content.  

Thankfully, Twitter’s ‘age-gate’ prevented these underage fictitious users from following or engaging with these alcohol brands. 

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Instagram where no ‘age-gate’ technology has been implemented.  The lack of age-gate technology on Instagram thus allowed the researchers to access content distributed by alcohol firms using these fictions ‘underage’ accounts.  Alcohol brands’ social media employees even responded to comments left by underage users! 

Underage users who follow alcohol-firms on Instagram receive hundreds of alcohol-related advertising messages. 

Experts who conducted the report believe this advertising could encourage alcohol abuse for many of these vulnerable and underage social media users.

Instagram defended its lack of age-gating technology by stating that it does not require users to input their age when a new account is created.  However, Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, does have access to the majority of Instagram user’s age. This is because most Instagram accounts are linked to a Facebook account, and Facebook does require its users to disclose their age when an account is set up.

**UPDATE: In a spectacular U-turn, Instagram has since implemented age-gate technology across their sponsored and organic offerings.

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