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Alcohol Companies Use New Media to Lure Young Drinkers: Report

Spirits industry says it's committed to responsible online advertising

WEDNESDAY, May 19 (HealthDay News) -- Alcohol companies are increasingly using the latest new media technologies -- including cell phones, social networking sites, YouTube and other features of the expanding digital universe -- to reach young drinkers, a new report contends.

And existing regulations may not be keeping up with the marketing trend, the report's authors added.

They're calling on the Federal Trade Commission, state attorney generals and others to investigate the phenomenon and examine whether current mechanisms to protect youth from alcohol marketing still work effectively in the digital era.

Young people are being exposed to a 24/7 "digital marketing ecosystem that is transforming the nature of advertising," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of public communication at American University in Washington, D.C. and co-author of the report, titled Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age.

"Youth are at the center of an exploding digital culture," added Montgomery, who, with another co-author of the report, Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, spoke at a Tuesday teleconference.

One area the study authors want officials and activists to look at is weak age-verification mechanisms, pointing out how easy it is for a young person to enter a false birth date so they are legally "of age" to enter a Web site.

"Close to 5,000 people under the age of 21 die of alcohol overuse each year," noted David Jernigan, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Virtual worlds show all of the appeal and none of the consequences of alcohol use and undercut efforts to reduce the incidence of underage drinking. At this point, alcohol companies appear limited only by their imaginations and pocketbooks."

According to the report, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth estimates that underage drinking accounts for 12 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. alcohol market.

Alcoholic beverage and other companies are now developing "advertising experiences", as opposed to the staid 30-second television spots of yesteryear, Chester said. And while young consumers are being enticed by attractive, entertaining, new marketing experiences, the alcohol companies are collecting data for future sales and product development purposes, he said.

"This is all about data collection for personalized, targeted marketing in order to better understand a user's attitude, their interests, their online behavior," Chester said. "Most of the data collection is covert. Users have no idea what's happening to the data."

And the new approach involves a "360-degree strategy," Montgomery said, meaning "a multiplicity of platforms throughout the day and night that includes online, offline, mobile, digital, music, video -- a whole range of different ways that consumers interact with new digital marketing."

Among examples cited in the report is beer maker Heineken's virtual city in which participants can live in apartments and get free storage and e-mail. The size of the "apartment" is determined by how much time the user spends on the site.

"On a single site, through a variety of applications, whether offering users free e-mail, access to music downloads, online videos or other applications, a wide array of techniques are deployed to ensure that the brand message is fully absorbed by the consumer," Chester said.

There are several major distribution platforms, the report authors stated, the first being social networking sites such as Facebook, where not only can companies promote their own brands, but they can enjoin consumers to promote their brands, too.

"There's a whole stealth world of marketing that occurs in social media spaces," Chester said. "It's a completely Wild West environment."

Video-sharing services such as YouTube have also become popular with alcohol marketers and consumers alike, according to the report.

A Smirnoff video promoting its alcoholic ice tea went "viral" and had 600,000 hits in just 10 days, Chester said. As of last fall, 5 million people had viewed it, Chester said.

Also popular with alcohol marketers are small mobile devices such as cell phones, which are "always with you and where people can track your every move," Chester said.

Taken together, these tools create a "rich media environment" where "people can be in the experience like they've never been before," Montgomery said.

Without a doubt, digital tools have their benefits and can be used for learning, civic engagement and more, the report authors stated.

"We're not calling for any kind of censorship, but we do think these are very serious issues that do require attention by regulators and public health professionals," Montgomery said.

In a news release issued Tuesday in response to the report, Lisa Hawkins, vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, said that "distilled spirits companies adhere to a rigorous set of content and placement guidelines for advertising and marketing materials in all media including online and digital communications channels. The spirits industry's longstanding commitment to responsible advertising regardless of the medium has been commended by the FTC and industry watchdogs."

"In today's marketplace," she added, "online and digital communications channels are used primarily by adults (21 years of age and older) for a key source of information, which makes these platforms responsible and appropriate channels for spirits marketers."

More information

View the full report at this site.

SOURCES: May 18, 2010, news release, Distilled Spirits Council, Washington, D.C.; May 18, 2010, teleconference with: Jeff Chester, executive director, Center for Digital Democracy; Kathryn Montgomery, Ph.D., professor, public communication, American University, Washington, D.C.; and David Jernigan Ph.D., associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore; Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age

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