By Sue Zeidler
LOS ANGELES Jan 22 The Federal Trade Commission
(FTC) plans this summer to recommend ways that the alcoholic
beverage industry can better protect underage viewers from
seeing its advertisements online.
Distillers, brewers and wineries pour millions of dollars
into brand promotion on Twitter, Facebook and other
social media, and industry critics contend they are not doing
enough to prevent young consumers from receiving these messages.
"We're doing a deep dive on how they're using the Internet
and social media," said Janet Evans, a lawyer with the FTC,
which is conducting a year-long study due to be released by
early summer. "We're focusing on underage exposure."
She would not elaborate on any potential recommendations
that might come out of the study, which began in April 2012.
The FTC is reviewing data from 14 big producers, Evans said,
including Beam Inc, the maker of Jim Beam, Diageo Plc
, home to Johnnie Walker, and Constellation Brands Inc
, which makes Robert Mondavi and Ravenswood wines.
The FTC report "is something we take seriously and place at
high priority," said Karena Breslin, director for digital
marketing at Constellation.
The FTC has made two requests for information since the
study began, she said.
The regulatory agency has not said it intends to impose
restrictions on liquor company social media advertising but it
can make recommendations to the industry.
The FTC is empowered to file suit to ensure consumers are
protected from deceptive marketing practices, Evans said, but
she stressed that studies of this nature are meant to promote
better self-regulation, not provide a basis for a case.
Industry executives say alcohol makers and distributors
voluntarily adhere to the same industry-set standard for
marketing to underage viewers on social media sites that the
industry set for its ads on TV and other media. That requires
that at least 71.6 percent of an audience consists of adults 21
"No one in their right mind would want to advertise to
people who can't legally buy their product," said Frank Coleman,
senior vice president for Distilled Spirits Council of the
United States (DISCUS), the trade group that sets the industry's
Coleman also cited recent data showing the audiences for
Facebook and Twitter are skewed heavily towards viewers who are
above the legal drinking age.
"According to Nielsen's latest data, the demographic
audience for Facebook is 83.5 percent 21 years and older, and
for Twitter it is 85 percent," Coleman said.
In June 2011, DISCUS revised its code upwards to 71.6
percent from 70 percent, after the FTC recommended it review the
standard to better reflect U.S. Census population data.
Industry critics, including David Jernigen, director of the
Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins
University, and Sarah Mart, research director of the advocacy
group Alcohol Justice, contend the industry didn't go far enough
and should raise the standard further.
Jernigen said it needs to be at least 85 percent to
effectively protect youth, so there would be no more than 15
percent exposure to the underage drinking population.
"The industry says its self-regulating but it's ineffective
and social media opens up a whole new set of problems because
their ads are everywhere," said Mart.
Coleman said the group now requires members to install
age-checking tools via instant messaging as a gateway to Twitter
feeds and other branded Web platforms that ask the user for a
birth date before admitting them.
In the first nine months of 2012, beer, wine and spirits
manufacturers spent an estimated $35 million for paid Web
display advertising, but industry executives estimate many
millions more were spent on website creation, video production
for platforms like Google's YouTube and social media
"We've significantly adjusted more money to digital for
online video, websites, Facebook and Twitter content," said
Kevin George, global chief marketing officer for Jim Beam, which
spends 30 percent of its media spend for online outlets, up from
10 percent in 2008, he said.
Many companies are expanding their digital staff. Wine maker
Constellation hired Breslin three years ago to initiate digital
marketing and now has a team of five reporting to her.
Many alcoholic beverage companies flocked to Facebook
because it requires users to post their birth dates when signing
Last year Twitter partnered with Buddy Media to offer a
screening tool that sends a direct message to fans who click on
an alcoholic brand. The message sends the fan a link to a site
that asks for date of birth.
Salesforce.com bought Buddy Media last June, which
is now folding the platform into its marketing cloud portfolio.
Health advocates and industry critics are crying foul.
"Facebook and other interactive platforms are poorly monitored
and not well age-protected," said Jernigen of Johns Hopkins
University. "Anyone can say they're 21 and click yes."