Media

How Alcohol Companies Launched a Digital Campaign Against America's Kids

According to a new study, companies like Captain Morgan and Budweiser have become extremely savvy at targeting young audiences.

Visit captainmorgan.com, and next to the brand’s iconic smiling pirate, you’ll see the question, “Are you old enough to come aboard?” Go to Budweiser.com, and you’ll get the request, “ID please.” Absolut.com’s home page tells visitors, “You have to be over 21 to enter this site.” All three brands, like the rest of the alcohol industry, require visitors to type in a birth date to show they are of legal drinking age before entering their websites.

That, so parents and the rest of public are supposed to believe, is how alcohol companies keep their online marketing away from kids. Riiight. If only bars and restaurants allowed every customer ordering a drink to simply pop the cap off a Sharpie, write his or her birth date on a napkin and pass it to the bartender. Wrote down the wrong date? No problem -- just cross it out and write down a new one. Or, in the online world, quit your browser and relaunch. It’s that easy.

If alcohol companies were only touting their products on company websites, the fact that the industry is flimsily self-regulated might not be much cause for alarm. The trouble is, according to a new report released last week from the Center for Digital Democracy and Berkeley Media Studies Group, they’re also saturating kid-popular websites like YouTube and Facebook with branded games, contests and viral videos, and tapping into people’s cell phones with apps and text messages. And research shows the marketing works.

“There are now at least 13 peer-reviewed, longitudinal studies of the relationship between exposure to alcohol marketing and youth drinking behavior,” David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told reporters in an online news conference. “These studies have all found that the more youth are exposed to marketing, in a wide range of forms and formats, the more likely they are to drink.”

Children and teens are on the web and using cell phones in stunning numbers. Nearly three quarters of 12- to 17-year olds use social networking sites, and by age 12, even more have mobile phones. Alcohol companies have no shortage of content that would likely appeal to these future consumers. Kids (who are math-savvy enough to enter the birth date of a 21-year-old) can play Malibu rum-sponsored bowling games on their phones, answer sports trivia questions on Coors’ Facebook page, or watch Smirnoff’s “Tea Partay” video, joining the 5 million other viewers who already have.

The CDD-BMSG joint report, “Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age,” shows how the alcohol industry’s latest online and mobile marketing tactics are remaking the media landscape. Brand ubiquity is blurring the lines between editorial content and ads, and even between “real” and “online” life. Marketers’ goals are changing too: It’s no longer enough for alcohol companies to get customers familiar with their brand; they want them to engage with it, to identify with it, to incorporate it into their lives and daily routines.

That’s exactly what Heineken did in 2007 when the company created an online virtual city with luxury real estate that users could only pay for with time and attention to the brand instead of cash. “Qualified buyers” could receive welcome kits and keys to their new posh homes in the mail. The strategy was targeted at Puerto Rican youth, who, like other youth of color, are at the core of the online marketplace. African American and Hispanic youth in particular consume more media than their white counterparts, making them even more attractive targets to advertisers.

While marketing to kids is nothing new, unlike with more traditional forms of advertising like print and broadcast, new media marketing is always on. Youth can now interact with beer and liquor brands 24/7 -- often without parents even knowing it. This, combined with an already high underage drinking rate (minors comprise 12-20 percent of the U.S. alcohol market), is a recipe for trouble.

Young people are not only more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, they are more susceptible to its allure, said George Askew, pediatrician and deputy CEO of Voices for America’s Children, the nation’s largest network of child advocacy organizations. “A huge body scientific data shows us that adolescence is a time of huge structural and functional changes in the brain,” Askew said, explaining that those changes can make teens more likely to take risks and make judgments based on emotion, particularly the need to belong -- a hallmark of alcohol advertising.

The report’s authors have urged the Federal Trade Commission and National Association of Attorneys General to investigate how alcohol companies are using social media to market their brands, collect consumer data and target specific groups, particularly kids and teens. With any luck, they’ll pay attention.

To read the full report, visit http://www.digitalads.org/alcohol.php

Heather Gehlert is an online communications specialist for the Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute. She holds a master's in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.