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Advertising on Social Media: Key Considerations for Alcohol Brands

With so much uncertainty, many brands are opting for a wait-and-see approach to social media advertising, though the approaches differ considerably from platform to platform.

As most Americans were stuck at home during 2020, total time spent on digital media increased to unprecedented levels. According to one recent survey, US adults spent 7 hours, 50 minutes per day consuming digital media in 2020, an hour more than they spent online in 2019.

Advertisers followed suit, making 2020 the first year in which spending on digital advertising exceeded spending on traditional advertising, such as print and broadcast. And while the pandemic and accompanying restrictions may be easing, digital advertising will likely continue to increase as a share of total advertising spending and in importance to brands.

While digital advertising presents many opportunities, it poses some unique challenges to the alcoholic beverage industry. Below, we outline key considerations for alcohol brands that are considering expanding their advertising presence on major social media sites.

Restrictions on Digital Advertising Placement

Most alcohol beverage advertisers have pledged to comply with one of three voluntary self-regulatory codes, specifically, those developed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Beer Institute, or the Wine Institute. Among other provisions, these codes direct that no more than 28.4 percent of the audience for an ad may consist of people under 21, based on “reliable audience data,” and that ad content should not appeal primarily to people under 21. Consumers who believe a brand is violating one of the codes can submit complaints to the applicable industry group. The US Federal Trade Commission also monitors for compliance with these codes.

Unfortunately for alcohol brands, some of the most popular social media sites have significant percentages of users that are below the legal drinking age. The sites also differ in the age demographic data that they make available and in the amount of control they give to advertisers to target their ads to specific age groups.

Social Media Age Demographics

TikTok is perhaps the hottest social media site on the planet, and advertisers are eager to get in front of its estimated 2 billion users. According to industry estimates, however, approximately one-third of the site’s users are age 17 or younger (unlike some other platforms, TikTok permits users under the age of 13 to sign up for a limited version of the service). Because of this demographic and TikTok’s current alcohol advertising policies (discussed below), alcohol beverage brands may refrain from placing advertising on TikTok, at least for now.

Other social media platforms skew at least somewhat older, though reliable data is not always available on the precise number of users below the legal drinking age. Rather, much of the data focuses on broad age groups, such as those 18 to 24, which may be less useful for alcohol advertisers. Estimates for key social media sites include:

  • Facebook: approximately 18 percent of users between the ages of 13 and 24;
  • Instagram: approximately 27 percent of users between the ages of 13 and 24; and
  • Snapchat: approximately 48 percent of users between the ages of 15 and 25.

While these estimates appear to suggest that Facebook and Instagram may be permissible advertising channels for alcohol brands, it is less clear whether such data would be deemed sufficiently “reliable” under the applicable codes. Facebook, for example, noted in its most recent SEC 10-K filing that its “age data is unreliable because a disproportionate number of our younger users register with an inaccurate age.”

Another important consideration is the tools the sites make available to advertisers to target users above the legal drinking age or to screen or block younger users. Twitter, for example, developed a tool that allows advertisers to age screen their followers and to determine whether a follower meets a minimum age requirement. Facebook permits advertisers to set specific minimum age targets. Such precision targeting has the potential to significantly reduce the risk of violating one of the self-regulatory codes.

Social Media Alcohol Advertising Policies

In addition to the self-regulatory codes and age demographics of each social media site, alcohol beverage advertisers should also familiarize themselves with the alcohol advertising policies of the major social media platforms.

Site

Sample Provisions as of March 2021*

Please note: this table is not intended to provide a comprehensive accounting of platform policies.

TikTok

The “trade” of alcohol products is prohibited on the platform.

May not post, upload, stream, or share content that offers the purchase, sale, trade, or solicitation of alcohol.

Instagram

Buying or selling alcohol products between private individuals is not allowed.

May not post content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, donate or gift alcohol products if it is not posted by a Page, Group, or Instagram Profile representing a real brick and mortar store, legitimate website, or brand.

Facebook

Ads that promote or reference alcohol must comply with all applicable local laws, required or established industry codes, guidelines, licenses, and approvals, and include age and country targeting criteria consistent with Facebook's targeting requirements and applicable local laws.

Ads that promote or reference alcohol must be targeted to users 21 years or older in the US.

Snapchat

Ads that promote or reference alcohol must not:

  • Target or be likely to appeal particularly to people under the legal drinking age in the territory where the ad will run.
  • Encourage or depict excessive or irresponsible consumption of alcohol.
  • Exploit an individual who is drunk or otherwise intoxicated.
  • Glamorize alcohol, or otherwise misrepresent the effects of consuming alcohol.
  • Associate alcohol with operating a vehicle or other activities that require a certain degree of skill or physical coordination, or with any illegal behavior.
  • Mandatory warning labels, such as “please drink responsibly” or its local variation (if applicable) must be prominently displayed in the ad.

Ads that promote or reference alcohol must be targeted to users 21 years or older in the US.

Twitter

Twitter restricts the promotion of the online and offline sales of alcohol and general awareness of alcohol brands.

Any advertisement for alcohol content must:

  • Not target minors or encourage, suggest, or entice underage drinking
  • Not use characters, sports-persons, celebrities, or images/icons appealing to minors
  • Not use minors or pregnant women as models in advertising
  • Not imply that drinking in excess is good, or that alcohol has therapeutic, relaxing, or stimulative properties
  • Not imply that alcohol has health benefits, can improve sexual, social, athletic, or professional performance or standing
  • Not mislead or confuse users into thinking alcoholic beverages are soft drinks or candy
  • Not associate drinking with activities that are potentially dangerous, require significant care, skill, etc. (e.g., driving a motor vehicle), or are antisocial or illegal (e.g., illegal drugs)
  • Not depict people under the influence of alcohol
  • Not emphasize a product’s alcoholic strength (promoting a product as having low or no alcohol content is acceptable)

Takeaway

With so much uncertainty, many brands are opting for a wait-and-see approach to social media advertising, though the approaches differ considerably from platform to platform. While a review of top-selling US wine brands (as measured by volume and growth) found virtually no official brand presence on TikTok, several brands have official accounts on Instagram, while nearly all have Facebook Pages. These results suggest that brands that wish to advertise on social media will need to develop site-specific strategies that reflect each site’s unique policies and demographics.

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