Since 2006, the amount of time the average person spends on social media websites has more than doubled, from 2.7 hours to 6.9 hours per month, according to Mashable, an Internet news site.  With such an opportunity to reach potential customers frequently, alcohol advertisers in particular have flocked to this medium. 

More kids are logging onto social media sites, meaning youth exposure to all online ads, including alcohol ads, is expanding. While wine, beer and spirits companies have set a voluntary standard limiting ad placement among traditional outlets when 28.4 percent or less of the audience is under age 21, setting such restrictions on social media platforms has proven trickier for regulators.

Youth exposure

“Alcohol companies have been right there on the edge of this,” says David Jernigan, director of the  Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, an organization that tracks youth exposure to alcohol marketing.

It’s hard to quantify the presence of alcohol advertisements on social media outlets, because ads are targeted to a user’s online behavior, and many of them are then circulated in the form of ‘viral’ posts, either by way of a YouTube video or an eye-catching photo, Jernigan says. However, it’s true that more kids are logging onto social media sites, meaning youth exposure to all online ads is expanding. For example, as of 2009, 73 percent of American teens ages 12 to 17 used at least one social networking site, such as Facebook, according to a Pew Research Center Internet study. And according to Consumer Reports, more than a third of minors on Facebook inflate their ages to sign up, because Facebook does not permit users below age 13.

"About 4,700 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes, including car crashes, alcohol poisoning and drowning."

Studies have shown that the more youth are exposed to alcohol marketing the more likely they are to drink, or to drink more if they already do. About 4,700 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes, including car crashes, alcohol poisoning and drowning.

How it’s done

The tactics alcohol advertisers use to appeal to youth include upbeat music, humor and animal and people characters, according to CAMY. The mediums advertisers use range from social media, to TV and radio, and magazines and billboards. While youth exposure to alcohol advertising has decreased in magazines, it increased in television by 71 percent from 2001 to 2009 — a higher growth rate than among any other targeted age group, according to a report by CAMY.

Who’s affected?

Studies have shown that African-American youth are exposed to more alcohol marketing than youth in general. In 2008, for example, they saw 32 percent more alcohol advertising in magazines compared to all youth, according to one study. The trend in television advertising was similar: This ethnic group was exposed to 17 percent more advertising per capita than all youth.

What regulators are doing about it

While youth exposure to alcohol advertising has decreased in magazines, it increased in television by 71 percent from 2001 to 2009.  Organizations are taking steps to reduce the impact of alcohol ads to youth. The biggest initiative may have come in 2003, when trade associations for beer and distilled spirits followed the wine industry in limiting ad placement among outlets when youth make up 30 percent or less of the audience. Their previous threshold had been 50 percent. The recent move from a 30 percent to 28.4 percent threshold reflects an update in the census population numbers. “If this is enforced, it reduces youth exposure,” Jernigan says. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Still, Jernigan points out, the Institute of Medicine and 24 state attorneys general have called for an even stricter standard to reduce adolescent exposure to the advertising.  Other regulation methods, such as time limitations on alcohol advertisements, haven’t been as successful. For example, in 2009, Dutch regulators prohibited alcohol advertisement during the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. in hopes of curbing youths’ exposure to them. CAMY researchers mimicked the impact this policy would have in the U.S. in a study; however, they found the time restriction would actually increase exposure among youth ages 12 to 20. That’s because the percentage of teens watching television increases after 9 p.m. 

What parents can do about it

Regardless of the future of alcohol advertising, Jernigan says parents can help by educating themselves and their children about the media and about alcohol and health. “So much of this advertising is placed to fly below the parental radar,” Jernigan says, “but in addition to talking to our kids about drinking, we have to talk to them about alcohol marketing, and help them understand that it will never tell the whole story about alcohol use and its consequences for young people.”