Alcohol Pushed to Kids on Facebook and What the FTC Is Doing About It

July 2, 2010
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Posted by Jeanne Sager on July 2, 2010 at 11:45 AM

Parents, it’s time to stop worrying about perverts on Facebook.

And start worrying about the marketers. The alcohol marketers.

If your child signs on to Facebook today and enters their real age — anything under 21 — there’s nothing to stop them from “liking” an alcoholic beverage company and essentially signing themselves up for a constant stream of in-your-face advertising from said company in their Facebook stream.

It’s becoming a big enough problem that the folks at the Federal Trade Commission have made social marketing by alcohol companies their biggest issue for an upcoming report to Congress.

Janet Evans, senior attorney in the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices, told The Stir this week that alcoholic beverage companies have agreed to a “70 percent standard” for its online marketing.

In other words, they have verbally agreed to advertise only on sites where 70 percent or more of the readers are over the age of 21.

As of March, Inside Facebook reports 23 percent of the site’s users are under 18, another 28 percent are between the ages of 18 and 25 — which means they’re pretty darn close to being over the limit.

But there’s only so much the FTC can do.

“Because of the first amendment issues with this, we have aggressively pursued self-regulation,” Evans tells The Stir. So this isn’t law — it’s suggested, and the companies police one another, ratting on egregious offenders to the FTC to emphasize their own compliance.

It’s working — to a point.

On Facebook and MySpace in particular, Evans says companies (and the social mediums themselves) have largely taken advantage of the required date of birth entries on registration to target advertising. It’s keeping an ad for booze from showing up alongside a child’s string of status updates, Evans says.

But it’s not keeping the ads from the kids entirely. In a test recently, Evans found she could send a widget to a 16-year-old specifically encouraging the girl to “drink bourbon.”

“I should NOT have been able to do that,” she says.

A 2004 study from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) found “the alcohol industry’s Web presence remains largely a potential playground for underage youth with little if any adult supervision.”

Their problems lay chiefly with games, which lured kids into the company websites, wallpapers, and more “freebies” likened to those which got the tobacco industry in trouble (and which are now completely illegal).

On Facebook fan pages, the FTC is aggressively pushing companies to do their own “live monitoring,” asking the marketing teams to not only unsubscribe kids who have fanned their sites, but to remove fans who have used photos of their children as their profile photo — hence associating kids with the product — and to delete comments that point to illegal or inappropriate use of the beverages.

A comment about driving drunk, for example, should be removed. Likewise, photos of a fraternity party with evident binge drinking do not belong.

But this doesn’t stop kids from liking the pages. And essentially “signing themselves up for advertising,” Evans says.

While signing on to most company websites requires you to enter your date of birth, there’s no such mechanism to fan a beer on Facebook.

But while watch groups have found myriad risks to youth with online alcohol advertising, the same groups — notably the Center for Digital Democracy — are wary of proposals to make Americans register in a database that would verify age against the state department of motor vehicles to assess true age.

Real age verification may solve the problem of kids lying about their age, but it also erodes Americans’ right to privacy.

Parents still have the right — and perhaps the responsibility — to watch over their kids’ social media pages and force teens to “unlike” these pages to keep the stream of advertising out of their faces.

And the FTC will continue to lobby the marketers to act responsibly, balancing their role as the watchdog for privacy with that of advertising police dog. Evans’ office will be launching a new study in January into the issue, and the result should be more suggestions the industry would be wise to adopt.

“This is one of the new media issues that’s not going to go away,” Evans tells The Stir.

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