Underage Facebook Members Exposed to Alcohol Ads, Promotions, Report Says

The Marin Institute is calling on Facebook to stop accepting paid ads for alcoholic beverages and to ban alcohol-related pages, applications and events, citing a study that found that alcohol-related content is reaching underage Facebook users despite company policies designed to prevent such marketing.

Depiction of alcohol and other drug use by minors on Facebook pages has long been a concern of preventionists, school officials and parents. But the latest controversy springs from Facebook’s recent moves to monetize the site, founded in 2004 and currently the world’s largest social-networking site with 300 million members.

Originally intended for use by college students, Facebook now counts among its membership everyone from preteens to retirees. An estimated one-third of the site’s members are under the legal drinking age.

Marin Institute researcher Sarah Mart, author of the “Alcohol Promotion and Facebook” report, takes a dim view of the changes. “Facebook started as a fun tool for college students to interact and connect, but it has morphed into yet another means for corporations to exploit its users, particularly youth,” she said. “As Facebook continues to grow as the youth market’s social-networking tool of choice, the alcohol industry’s influence on Facebook must not be underestimated.”

A Facebook spokesperson told Join Together that the company “take[s] the issue of underage drinking seriously and believe the standards we have set in this area lead the Internet and media industries.”

“Specifically, we require that all alcohol-related advertisements use our tools and demographic targeting options to restrict the ad to users who are over the legal drinking age,” the Facebook spokesperson said. “We strictly enforce this policy through proactive investigations and response to user reports. We also require developers to restrict access to alcohol-focused applications, and respond to all reports of breaches in this policy.”

The Marin report, however, contends that Facebook’s Alcohol Advertising Guidelines — which resemble the alcohol industry’s own voluntary advertising guidelines — go largely unenforced, and that underage members are among those exposed to paid alcohol ads and promotional content — some of which promotes dangerous drinking, the report says. Facebook also does not place age restrictions on alcohol-related events or groups, so under-21 users are able to access many of these  features, the report noted.

“The only way to protect youth and young adults from the incessant promotion of alcohol on Facebook is to remove all promotional content about alcohol,” said report co-author Jacob Mergendoller, a student at Wesleyan University. Marin called on Facebook to hire external monitors to enforce its rules on alcohol-related content, as well.

Marin researchers created a Facebook profile for an underage user and another for a 21-plus user, then used both to test the accessibility of alcohol-related content. The fictitious profile included interests and activities — such as “alcohol” and “bars” — designed to attract alcohol companies, who gain access to such data when they advertise on Facebook. They found that pages for brands like Captain Morgan, Jack Daniels, Bacardi, Bacardi Breezer, Heineken, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade were accessible to the under-21 user, as was an application called “Shots!” that allowed users to send virtual shots of alcohol to their Facebook friends.

Another application called “Beer Mail,” which encouraged users to “share some beer with your friends and get them drunk,” also could be used by the under-21 member, the Marin report said. Facebook events featuring alcohol were ubiquitous, researchers found, and the under-21 user could access events like “Smirnoff Saturdays” at a North Carolina bar and the “Captain Morgan Welcome Back Tour of Gainesville,” which targeted students at the University of Gainesville.

Overall, searches conducted by Marin researchers yielded 93 pages with more than 1.1 million fans for the top-selling beer brands, 2,200 events for the top five beer brands and another 2,200 for the top liquor brands, and 58,000 groups related to the search term “alcohol.”

“Facebook’s policies regarding alcohol ads and alcohol-related content in pages, applications, events, and groups do not effectively protect its users from exposure,” the report concluded. “Facebook does not appear to monitor or ensure compliance with its own alcohol advertising rules, despite Facebook’s claim that it reserves the right to reject or remove advertising that it deems contrary to its advertising philosophy.”

Many of the alcohol-related pages are created by individual Facebook users, not alcohol companies or sellers, Marin acknowledged. However, Mart and colleagues noted that alcohol companies are attracted to the viral-marketing opportunities available to them through Facebook pages, applications, events and groups.

“At the same time that Facebook must address the inadequacies of its policies, the alcohol industry must also question its affiliation with Facebook as a marketing tool when content so blatantly violates many of the industry’s own advertising guidelines,” the report said. “Pages, applications, events, and groups all contained numerous posts about harmful behaviors associated with specific brand names of a variety of beer and spirits, many accessible to users of all ages.”

Without conceding fault, Facebook officials struck a conciliatory tone in response to the Marin report. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with the Marin Institute to challenge others to meet the standards we’ve set,” a spokesperson for Facebook said. “We plan to reach out to the Marin Institute in hopes that their research may have revealed violations in our policies and to open a dialogue around industrywide standards.”

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