Opinion piece by Dr Lyn Roberts AO, Acting VicHealth CEO
First published on Croakey, 16 April 2019
A beautiful model poses in a designer bikini by the pool, washboard abs on display as she holds up a glass to the camera.
On the surface it looks like a typical, stylised influencer Instagram post selling a glamourous dream life.
Yet look a bit closer and you’ll see the post isn’t selling a luxury lifestyle – it’s selling vodka.
This influencer post is one of thousands on social media that have been paid for by the alcohol industry, hoping to capitalise on the popularity of ‘insta-famous’ stars to sell their harmful products to impressionable young people.
Our recent research revealed not only is Instagram flooded with booze ads but it appears a concerning number of posts paid by the alcohol industry aren’t declared as advertisements.
The research looked into the top 70 Aussie Instagram influencers and their alcohol-related content. We found almost three-quarters of influencers featured alcoholic drinks in their posts, yet only a quarter fully disclosed when they had been paid by alcohol brands.
The research showed alcohol brands using tactics straight out of the playbook of Big Tobacco, who not that long ago would get away with paying glamourous Hollywood stars to advertise cigarettes.
The alcohol industry uses similar tactics today, paying for seemingly organic posts featuring branded glasses and bottles and sponsoring events frequented by influencers to avoid having to disclose payment.
Technology races ahead of regulation
It’s clear that more must be done to regulate alcohol advertising on online platforms like Instagram.
While alcohol brands and their proponents will argue the industry-led Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) is an effective weapon against errant marketers, our research shows it’s clearly not working.
We need advertising standards that are relevant for modern marketing tactics – including social media promotion – and we need active policing and actual sanctions rather than simply removing posts that fall foul of the code.
Health groups are leading the push to better regulate social media platforms and unhealthy industries that use them to market their unhealthy products.
We need to see action on this to protect those in the community who are particularly vulnerable to the alcohol industry’s influence – especially young people.
Change takes time. In the meantime, it’s critical we educate and empower young people to be literate to the tactics used by the alcohol industry to manipulate them to drink.
Time to call last drinks on sneaky tactics
It’s not right that alcohol brands can get away with not disclosing paid content, because it makes it really hard for young people to discern when they’re being sold an ad.
We know that young people who like or follow alcohol brands on social media are twice as likely to drink at risky levels than those who don’t.
We also know that alcohol brands spend millions of dollars each year advertising their products to impressionable young people – because it works. For every advertising dollar spent, young people drink three per cent more alcohol.
Alcohol companies want young people to think their products are glamourous and fun, yet fail to take responsibility for the massive harm alcohol causes to their customers, their families and friends, and the broader community.
VicHealth wants to turn the tables and encourage young people to question the spin peddled to them by alcohol companies.
It’s why we’ve launched Top Spin, a statewide competition encouraging young people to call out the sneaky tactics used by the alcohol industry to influence them to drink.
The competition asks young people to look behind the glamour and the spin pushed by the industry and share their thoughts about being targeted by alcohol brands to spend big and drink bigger.
It’s so important we hear the voices of young people on this issue and empower them to voice their concerns.
For more information visit topspinvic.com.au