New face of alcohol promotion defies advertising restrictions

Through Facebook, the Bundy Bear’s message becomes part of fans’ everyday story, bypassing restrictions on how the product is promoted.

The Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) recommended in a draft report in February that the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) should include all forms of marketing within its self-regulatory scope, for example sports sponsorship and merchandise.

While the proposals press in the right direction insofar as they point to a wider range of marketing activities that alcohol companies undertake, they are still predominantly concerned with what is shown in ads or where a brand’s logo appears. This approach is inadequate to deal with the wide-ranging and innovative ways alcohol brands use data-driven, real-time, participatory and culturally embedded marketing tactics.

Facebook is a key player in the development of “native”, targeted and participatory forms of branding. Where once advertising was distinguishable from editorial content, brands are increasingly integrated into the everyday flows of content we interact with online.

Facebook’s 2013 revenue was US$7.87 billion, a 55% year-on-year increase. Facebook’s revenue growth is underpinned not only by continuing growth in its active user base (1.28 billion in April 2014) but also by offering advertisers better opportunities to integrate their content into the platform.

We undertook a study of the activity of the 20 alcohol brands with the most popular dedicated Australian pages on Facebook in 2012.

By the end of 2012 those 20 brands had 2.5 million followers on their Facebook pages. During the year the brands posted more than 4500 items of content. Their followers interacted with that content – liking, sharing and commenting on it – over 2.3 million times. Each of those interactions increases the reach of the brand into the news feeds of users.

Going ‘native’ via the news feed

A user’s news feed is generated using an algorithm that takes account of many data points. Facebook scans your network to produce a stream of content it judges you will find most engaging based on data it accumulates about people like you.

To be visible within the news feeds of their target market, brands either pay to have their content promoted or they generate engagement with consumers. The more engagement brands generate the more visible they will be in the news feeds of consumers.

Brands get consumers to play an active part in creating, adapting and circulating brand messages. They create content that mirrors the personalities, practices and interests of consumers. This generates affinity between the brand and consumers on Facebook.

Alcohol brands use Facebook to get consumers to incorporate alcohol consumption into the stories they tell about their everyday lives.

Getting fans to spread the message

Brands most commonly post to Facebook on Fridays between 3pm and 6pm. Brand content that connects drinking to a specific event or time of day generates higher levels of engagement. On average an item of brand content generates 530 interactions; that rises to 792 when it is targeted at a specific event or time of day.

For example, a typical Friday afternoon post by Bundaberg Rum featured the Bundy Bear looking at his watch and telling fans it was only “118 minutes till Rum O’Clock”. The post received 683 likes, 53 comments and 94 shares.

The post was made just after 3pm. A selection of comments in the first half hour included:

Sorry, too late, couldn’t hang in anymore!

It’s always rum o clock on my watch!

4 hours ago is when I had my first rum probably! … you need to get your watch checked, 10am was 4 hours ago.

Brands routinely prompt fans to express their drinking culture, often saying things that brands could never explicitly say themselves without violating alcohol advertising regulations.

At the very moment people are looking for a way to tell their friends they’ve knocked off work and are enjoying a drink, the brand is there with an item of content that enables them to express that sentiment. The brand provides cultural ideas and images the fan can incorporate into their own story about their life.

Creating content that resonates with the cultural practices, identities and conversations of the target market embeds the brand within everyday flows of content on Facebook. The more engagement brands generate, the more Facebook’s algorithms “recognise” affinity between brands and specific social networks. This builds up the visibility of brand content within news feeds.

Where are alcohol brands headed next?

What we see alcohol brands doing on Facebook is the culmination of many years of innovation in culturally embedded, customised and data-driven branding. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as a provocation to think critically about where alcohol brands are headed next.

Developing appropriate regulatory frameworks for alcohol marketing needs to begin with an adequate conceptualisation of how branding works in an interactive media system. That means going beyond policing the content of advertising to engage seriously with how brands harness consumer participation.

The more consumers interact, the more data they generate, the more their participation can be anticipated and responded to. Regulation also needs to address what information is collected and how it is used to manage these culturally embedded and customised forms of branding.