As celebrity-led promotion of alcohol proliferates on digital platforms, governments must do much more to regulate alcohol marketing, writes Chanelle Wilson, an Alcohol Project Research Officer at Cancer Council Western Australia and is currently completing her PhD at Curtin University.
Chanelle Wilson writes:
Scrolling through my Instagram feed I see yet another celebrity chatting and laughing whilst a carefully placed alcohol product is perched in the centre of the screen.
Looking at the description I find that the celebrity has partnered with an alcohol company to release a new alcohol brand, yet nowhere on the post is it identified as an advertisement.
Celebrity marketing of alcohol brands is not a new phenomenon. Diddy used his celebrity fame and media to promote and market Cîroc Vodka in 2009.
However, this trend has grown quickly. In 2018, it was estimated that about 40 celebrities were affiliated with alcohol brands, while today there are more than 350 celebrity affiliated brands worldwide. Ryan Reynolds. Margot Robbie. Dwayne Johnson. Jennifer Lopez. These global names are just a handful of the celebrities of whom have recently unveiled their own alcohol brands.
So why the sudden increase in celebrity endorsements of alcohol?
The alcohol business can be incredibly profitable, with Statista forecasting global alcohol sales to reach approximately USD$2.2 trillion by 2025.
Large alcohol companies are exploiting the recent trend of celebrity alcohol brands, purchasing said brands for substantial amounts of money, while retaining the brand’s association with the celebrity.
Diageo is one example, purchasing the tequila brand Casamigos from George Clooney and co-founders for USD$1 billion. Other celebrities have followed suit, signing deals or creating their own alcohol brands, even at times where it is a questionable fit with their public image.
Both Blake Lively and Jennifer Lopez, who have openly discussed how they do not drink alcohol, have been recently criticised by fans for each releasing a ready to drink (RTD) range to capitalise on current trends. However, this does not seem to have impeded sales as Jennifer Lopez’s brand, DeLola, was found to be one of the most popular new alcohol products in the second quarter of 2023, thought to be partially driven by her association with the product.
Consumption of RTDs are at a record high here in Australia, and their popularity is expected to continue growing.
Young people who look up to these celebrities as role models are constantly being shown that alcohol is part of a glamorous lifestyle.
Kendall Jenner has over 289 million Instagram followers, many of whom would be young adults and adolescents, and yet her 818 tequila brand can be seen across many of her posts as an example of part of her lavish lifestyle.
The normalisation of alcohol use and positive portrayal of alcohol has been found to relate to increased intentions to purchase, greater quantity and frequency of drinking, all of which have been found to increase alcohol-related harms.
Current advertising controls for social media are weak and ineffective. Age-gating requirements for alcohol social media pages are easy to circumvent.
The existing weak controls don’t even apply for personal accounts depicting alcohol. Celebrity posts are often carefully curated to portray a specific image, often of glamour and wealth, or include subtle advertising of contracted products. But they do not declare the post as an advertisement, even though the product is clearly being promoted.
Under the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ (AANA) code, if an influencer is receiving any kind of benefit from posted content, then it should be “clearly distinguishable as such”. However, there are no specific instructions on how it should be declared.
The industry-designed and run Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) is silent on the disclosure of advertising on social media posts. Both of these codes are weak, voluntary and there are few, if any, consequences for ignoring them.
On top of nearly 40,000 alcohol advertisements found on Meta platforms in Australia, young people are also bombarded with alcohol brands as long as they follow celebrities.
Celebrity endorsements have been used in advertising for a long time as viewers develop personal links and attachment towards particular celebrities. If a celebrity is perceived as familiar or attractive, these positive feelings can become associated with the brand or product being promoted, fostering brand loyalty.
This may mean that young people are more likely to have a positive response, and remember alcohol products advertised by celebrities, which can increase likelihood of purchasing and consumption.
Young people who have frequently engaged with celebrity alcohol related content have even been found to drink more in one sitting, and have increased alcohol-related problems, such as blacking out.
Young people who are learning about the world and acceptable social behaviour look towards celebrities as examples. What they are learning is that alcohol is “acceptable or normal”, and a fun, and glamorous way to socialise.
Ideally, celebrities would be using their platform to educate and spread accurate health messages, rather than engage in subtle promotion of their own alcohol brands.
It should be a no-brainer that posts promoting an alcohol brand are clearly identified as advertisements and are restricted from young social media users.
Real action is needed to protect consumers on digital platforms.
Current voluntary, industry-designed codes are inherently flawed and have not kept pace with advancements in alcohol advertising.
Meanwhile, alcohol brands have swiftly and thoroughly exploited the promotional opportunities of digital platforms. It’s clearly not in the industry’s interests to voluntarily restrict how they market their products.
Government-led regulation of alcohol marketing is needed in Australia, independent of the alcohol industry, to better reflect community standards and stop the bombardment of children and at-risk groups with alcohol promotions.
• Chanelle Wilson is an Alcohol Project Research Officer at Cancer Council Western Australia and is currently completing her PhD at Curtin University. See examples of celebrity marketing of alcohol on social media platforms.
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