Professor Christine Griffin, from the Department of Psychology, worked with academics from Massey University in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand researching how 18 – 25 year olds respond to online marketing of drink brands.
She is presenting the findings at the conference: ‘Under Control? Alcohol and Drug Regulation Past and Present’ being held at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine from 21 to 23 June.
The research explored ways in which various digital technologies and social network sites are integrated into young adults’ drinking cultures in Aotearoa, New Zealand. The project was supported by the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand (contract MAU0911).
The three-year study, which involved interviews with young social network users, found that sites such as Facebook play an important role before drinking, during drinking, and following drinking episodes and that sharing photos is particularly important.
Professor Griffin said: “The sites reinforce the idea that drinking is about fun, pleasure and socialising. Alcohol brands become an integral part of young people’s everyday lifestyles, reinforcing the widespread culture of intoxication.
“But despite the vast amount of alcohol products, events and marketing on the internet, and particularly on Facebook, this content was not always viewed as marketing. For many participants, only Facebook ads in the sidebar were interpreted as marketing. Social media therefore offer important opportunities for alcohol marketing to young people – and alcohol companies have been quick to recognise this.”
The research found that the amount of money large alcohol companies are devoting to digital marketing is increasing rapidly, and by engaging with online marketing the site users are also providing personal data to the drinks companies.
As commercial platforms social network sites use sophisticated dataminers and algorithms to combine and sell data to third parties and other commercial interests.
Professor Griffin said: “Every click and interaction with an alcohol product page on Facebook gives data about the individual. This information is used to present users with marketing that is personally tailored to them, that is targeted advertising based on your identity, interests, peer network, attendance at events, or location.
“The regulation of alcohol marketing should include new media and digital marketing, and be flexible to include new and evolving marketing activities.”
Professor Griffin said keeping track of digital alcohol marketing strategies and how they are used by different groups of young people is a major endeavour. This topic will be the focus of a Bath University PhD studentship starting in October 2014 under Professor Griffin’s supervision, linked to the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies which is funded by the Medical Research Council from September 2013 to August 2018.
She said: “There is a role for research on whether digital alcohol marketing increases young people’s alcohol consumption – but it’s equally (if not more) important to investigate how these marketing strategies are taken up and how they engage young people and infiltrate their everyday social lives via social media – whether they are even seen as advertising for example. Then can we consider more effective ways of challenging such practices.”