FTC to increase oversight of Internet alcohol marketing
I have mixed feelings about the Federal Trade Commission requiring alcoholic beverage companies to reveal their “Internet marketing and data collection practices,” as reported here.
Most of the information I cite here came to me this morning from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a Kentucky-based whiskey brewer, through an email blast. Unfortunately, the contents of that email are not available on the Internet, so I can’t provide a link.
But according to Buffalo Trace, the FTC “for the first time” has requested the information in order “to see how effective the industry’s voluntary guidelines are in reducing marketing messages to underage audiences.” The companies now under compulsary order by the FTC include Anheuser-Busch, Diageo, Constellation, Brown-Forman, Jackson Family Wines, Pernod Ricard and many others that are big players in the wine, beer and spirits industry.
The FTC is concerned, rightfully so, with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages to people below the age of 21. According to Adweek magazine, which reported a version of the story yesterday, until fairly recently the FTC wasn’t terribly concerned with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages. But all that changed following “the explosion in mobile apps and social media, reportedly a new favorite of alcohol marketers.” Seems the FTC became aware of a study which determined that “digital marketing…might be even more profound than the known risks of exposure to traditional marketing,” particularly when targeted to “youth who…increased their drinking levels more over time…into their late 20s.” You can find a link to this study by going here and then clicking on the “Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age” link at the bottom of the page, which brings you the PDF.
The reason I have mixed feelings about this new policy by the FTC is because I’m concerned about the increasing encroachment of the government into our Internet activities. I grant that the government has a legitimate interest in combating underage drinking. It’s also obvious that alcoholic beverage companies are experts when it comes to marketing. See this report on how “Social networks are becoming the go-to platform for alcohol marketing,” which says “social media has become a new venue for promotion, and alcohol is no exception.” Check out, for example, this YouTube-like opener for Corona Beer. It’s really well made, addictive in its own way. Who wouldn’t want to be young, cute and lovable, on a warm beach at night, with other young, cute lovable kids, rocking out to live music while sucking up the suds? The possibilities for love are endless.
Of course these ads are reprehensible; they seek to entice young people into irresponsible behavior, at a point in their lives–teenage–when they’re least capable of self-discipline. On the other hand, how intrusive do we want government to get, even with giant corporations? It’s also unclear what the FTC means to do with the information it has required from the companies, which is due by June 11. Can the FTC force companies to drop their Internet ads? Is that censorship? What will the courts decide? As usual, the intersection of public policy, law and private behavior (remember, “corporations are people”) is an exceedingly complicated one.