Anheuser-Busch Companies, maker of Michelob Ultra, is one of several alcohol manufacturers capitalizing on the perfect storm of the untamed Wild West of social media combined with an industry permitted to police itself.
Although alcohol is a legal substance for adults age 21 or older, it is the leading drug used by underage American youth. The drug is one of the three leading risk factors for global disease burden according to study appearing in Lancet in 2012. In adolescents in particular, alcohol use increases the likelihood of injury, addiction and death, and of course the risky behaviors teens are known to find tempting... but it also damages a brain that isn't fully developed until their 20's.
Exposure to alcohol marketing has been identified as one factor that may lead to underage alcohol consumption. While nobody really needs a 'longitudinal study' to come to that conclusion, one was done and the hard numbers appeared in Addiction in Oct. 2016. A previous Alcohologist.com article noted that the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University (CAMY) has found that youth in the United States were 96 times more likely per capita to see an ad promoting alcohol than an industry ad discouraging underage drinking.
Industry watchdog, California-based AlcoholJustice, keeps tabs on the sketchy practices engaged by the alcohol makers and the ad agencies pimping them. "Alcohol ads are ubiquitous on public transit, billboards, sports stadiums, and digital media. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer inexpensive, virtually unregulated promotional platforms to alcohol producers and marketers, who encourage youth to build relationships with their brands."
No clear rules, no independent review of content
Alcohol ads are shown to a somewhat gullible, very impressionable, and ultimately naive audience that isn't even old enough to purchase, possess. or consume the drug because there's a 'bro code' in the alcohol industry: Their ad policies are voluntary and self-regulated. As a result, teens are going to get served the ads because the fox is supervising the chicken coop.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has guidelines defining everything from blogs and social networks to video sharing sites and micro blogging services as 'advertising.' As such, "any use of social media by industry members is subject to the same limitations, requirements and restrictions as any other form of advertising previously has been, among other guidelines...
... ads must be limited to an audience where at least 70 percent are of drinking age.
It's a guideline, remember. And it's self-policed.
Where does the 70 percent figure come from? The overall census of the U.S. says 70 percent of us are 21 or older. The census of social media platforms doesn't mate up well with the overall population however. Pew Research (click on their link to the complete .pdf report) shows 72 percent of its users are under age 18.
By the way, Instagram only appeals to four percent of adults over 65 years of age. As for American teenagers, in a Piper Jaffray semi-annual Taking Stock With Teens survey, 32 percent described Instagram as their most important social network, second only to Snapchat. Statista shows the share of teenagers in the United States who were Instagram users as of March 2015, sorted by gender and age group. During that period of time, 64 percent of female U.S. teens aged 15 to 17 years used the social networking app.
Of the 500,000 advertisers on Instagram, you wouldn't count on seeing a business that has a self-imposed rule of not advertising to minors
Advertising a label or a company to establish brand identity is what companies do. In the uber-competitive beverage industry, brand loyalty is everything. It would appear the alcohol makers are attempting to establish their brand with would-be users of their beverage when they're old enough. Which all seems odd when we're talking about a toxic, carcinogenic drug rather than Kool-Aid.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has overall oversight of advertising and has been conducting a study for more than a year on alcohol-beverage companies’ use of online advertising, with the results yet to be released. FTC will focus on age verification – a subject the TTB guidelines on social media do not address.
Like the Michelob Ultra sponsored post shown above, kids are being delivered ads where they live: Instagram and other popular platforms that are saturated with adolescent users. They'll get Ultra right alongside the selfies, Selena Gomez posts, and the snap of the pizza slice a friend is about to down. Self-regulation. It works until it doesn't. Just ask the financial services industry.
Don't just fix the shocks, fill the potholes.Even the addiction recovery professional and paraprofessionals nap on such front-end, front-line issues. Things like this advertising issue on Instagram are barely on the radar of recovery advocates, be they treatment centers or interventionists. They're overburdened as it is with treating the ill and have little time or disposable assets to address prevention. Aside from the massive economic and public health concern America's insatiable appetite for alcohol creates (see related video), no alcoholic ever became alcoholic without taking the first drink. Period.
Certainly not everyone who drinks becomes alcoholic, but a report from the National Institutes for Health definitively links teen use with higher alcoholism risk later in life. In a nerdy analysis, it would seem a recovery advocate would be sacrificing job security by supporting prevention efforts. Not true. There will always be drug users and those genetically predisposed to the disease of addiction. Recovery advocacy is crucial... prevention is essential. It's like being part mechanic, part street crew: You put new shocks on cars that have run through potholes and sooner rather than later you just fix the stupid potholes. Instagram's Michelob ad...that's a pothole.
For more reading on alcohol advertising, see
Alcohol advertising in sports blasted for 'grooming child drinkers,' bans becoming popular internationally
Scott Stevens, is the author of four alcohol books including the December 2016 release, I Can’t See The Forest With All These Damn Trees In The Way: The Health Consequences of Alcohol. Get the new BookLocker title now on Amazon (viewbook.at/prehab), alcohologist.com, and everywhere you buy books. Click Alcopocalypse for the author’s 2017 Alcohol Awareness Month whitepaper. Image by Peter Lecko, used with permission.