ASA Food & Drink Sector Ruling: social media advertising of alcohol to students

Targeting students with alcohol advertising can be risky;  there is a useful Advertising Standards' Authority (ASA)  adjudication in June 2018 on Diageo's Captain Morgan on marketing celebratory drinking.

Key elements included humour, youthful appeal and reasonable steps to ensure adverts were directed at the over 18s as well as minimising children’s exposure to them and not showing/encouraging excessive consumption.

A promoted tweet for Captain Morgan stated:

“When your student loan hits your bank account…Like if you’re celebrating! #Freshers #LikeACaptain” and a two-second gif of a smiling pirate fist pumping the air.

Three issues were raised, but none were upheld.  These were whether the advert:

  1. encouraged irresponsible spending on alcohol amongst students;

This was not upheld. The ad referred to “freshers” and was posted during freshers’ week. The ASA considered many people would associate freshers’ week with meeting new people who were fellow students, and socialising with them, including drinking alcohol. The ASA further considered people would know it was the time when students would receive their first student loan payments. The ad was intended to be humorous. In light of that particular context, the ASA considered that people would understand that the ad was light-heartedly implying that students could spend some of their student loan money on socialising and alcohol. While the ad played on that implication, it was not considered that it explicitly or assertively encouraged the spending of student loan payments on alcohol and there was nothing in the ad that suggested that should be done to excess. Diageo had countered that the humorous tone and content was designed to be conversational and to play on events to which students could relate – the receipt of a student loan. They said it was not a call to action to consume or purchase alcohol and the ad did not show alcohol being consumed or show any alcohol products.

  1. was of particular appeal to people under 18; 

This was not upheld. The ad featured a character dressed as a buccaneer. Whilst the ASA considered that the costume and playfulness of the ad might have some appeal to children and teenagers, they did not consider it would have particular appeal to under-18s, as there were no further childlike or youthful elements to the ad which supported that impression, the character appeared older, and there was nothing distinct about the costume. The gif format, text and character’s motions were not likely to have particular appeal to any particular age group. Diageo had also argued that gifs were commonly used as a format for digital content and did not have particular appeal to people under the age of 18, nor were they reflective of youth culture.

  1. was inappropriately targeted at people under 18.

A promoted Tweet was able to be delivered directly to select Twitter users who had a registered age of 18 or older and whose interests matched those selected by the marketer. Therefore, because the ad was able to be targeted at a defined set of users, the relevant test under the Code was whether the ad had been directed at people under 18. It was not relevant whether more than 25% of Twitters users or those users who saw the ad were aged 18 and over.

The ASA agreed with Captain Morgan that they could not be expected to guarantee that all under 18s would not see the ad. Instead, they considered that on social media, marketers should be able to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable steps to ensure that alcohol ads were directed at an audience that was aged 18 and over so as to minimise children’s exposure to them. Because younger users might misreport their age on social media,  marketers should not rely solely on age data, and should additionally use interest-based factors, where available, to help exclude those aged under 18 from a target audience. The proportion of under-18s on the platform would be relevant in determining the extent to which interest-based or other behavioural targeting would be needed in order to ensure that the ad was not directed at under-18s.

In this case, the available data from Twitter and a third party web-traffic analysis software indicated that between 81% and 91% of users were aged 18 and over. Also, keyword targeting had been used by Captain Morgan to identify users registered as 18 or over who had recently tweeted or searched for the keywords “uni”, “fresher” or “fresher’s”. The ASA considered that, given that the ad appeared during fresher’s week, those terms were likely to be tweeted and searched for predominantly by those currently in their first year of university, of whom 99% were aged 18 and over in the UK.

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