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Alcohol brands, social media and regulatory compliance

28/05/2012

Europe’s leading alcohol brands recently launched their “Responsible Marketing Pact” designed to create verifiable, common standards for marketing communications. Much of the focus of the pact is to reduce the risks of under age consumers being exposed to advertising campaigns. The pact itself is designed to head off further regulations on the industry’s advertising.

Social media is a key aspect to this and UK brands already have guidelines from CAP and the industry self-regulatory body, the Portman Group. Social’s popularity with consumers is part of its attraction to marketers. Alcohol brands achieve some of the highest levels presents a number of challenges for brand owners and a key component is preventing under age consumers from accessing such content.

Brand websites have long been covered by this but the scope extends to include social channels, blogs, email, MMS and Twitter. The Portman Group’s “Digital Marketing Guidelines” clearly stipulate that:

”Over 18 age confirmation details can be provided by third parties. However, the onus is on the drinks company to ensure that the third party has appropriate procedures in place to obtain this information.”

Restricting under-18s access to branded social networking content would seem like a simple element to deliver but the reality is that adherence requires some effort.

Facebook is an ideal channel for the sector because age controls are built into the brand page settings. The one issue to consider is geographical variations. A UK over -18 page is fine but if you have significant US traffic (and this data is easily obtainable) then consider a US page. The UK page can then be set-up to only be accessible to UK residents aged 18+ (and the US page, 21+).

YouTube is a more difficult channel to crack. As far as the ASA is concerned, it is within the scope of the respective codes. Setting up filters isn’t an easy process. The tools aren’t built into the standard channel settings though are available to commercial partners. The age verification filters do work when visitors access a specific channel. However, they fall down when a visitor accesses via the video’s URL. This is an element that regulators should be pushing back to Google to address given the popularity of the site.

Twitter is even more vague. It’s terms of service contain a statement regarding binding contracts which is taken as a reference to over 18s (who in the US are the only people who can form a binding contract). Yet this is far too opaque for those registering. Who reads the terms and conditions anyway? A wordy legal statement is hardly a concrete solution to the issue. And why no age capture at registration?

For alcohol brands it means a presence here requires much greater care. The lack of age capture when registering means that brand messaging could be seen by under-18s. It also means that the size of this audience is an unknown. Research has always suggested that Twitter was popular with older consumers but recent data contradicts this.

Brand owners should consider using Twitter solely for corporate messaging as this offers some respite (as the code allows for corporate sites to avoid age verification, the same rationale could be used here if the messaging is trade/stakeholder focused). This is important because the code and the responsible marketing pact stipulate that advertising should only be shown on channels where 70% of the audience are over 18. Twitter is the big unknown.

The guidelines are clear and there is no excuse for non-compliance. Brand owners should avoid entering each new channel without considering their ability to control who sees their communications. Whilst ignorance is no defence if challenged, the regulators should also be pushing the site owners to ensure that minors are categorized and that advertisers can control whether these audiences are exposed to advertising and social messages. We’ve been through the process of reviewing all social channels for a drinks client. Our takeout? It’s complex, inconsistent and marketers must tread carefully.

(An earlier version of this post first appeared on the blog of Birmingham PR agency, Seal).

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