Social Media for Alcoholic Beverage Producers and Distributors – Legal Concerns

Note: This article explores some of the legal concerns facing those who use social media for alcohol-related businesses. It is not intended as legal advice.  Please consult your attorney.

العربية: مجموعة مشروبات كحولية. Català: Divers... Are legal concerns keeping your alcohol-related business away from social media?

Are you an alcoholic beverage supplier or producer?  Would you like to take advantage of social media to promote your brand and build a loyal following of advocates?  Many of the high-volume producers AND the small-batch distilleries and wineries are already doing so with great success.

A Big Reason “Y” Social Media and Alcohol Can Mean Big Business

As Generation Y (otherwise known as “Millennials”, or those born between 1982 and 1995) comes of age, a whole new audience of alcoholic beverage consumers is becoming available – and they’re a group who grew up with the internet and social media.  This group, numbering approximately 65 million in the US alone uses the internet for entertainment and socializing more than any other group, so if you have been ignoring social media, feeling that your customers don’t use it, it’s time to think again!

Legal Concerns Keeping Your Alcohol-Related Business from Social Media?

Perhaps you have been holding off for fear of running afoul of marketing guidelines and laws.  It is a good idea to consult your attorney to establish a set of guidelines for social media marketing, or adapt your existing marketing policy for the nuances of online marketing and social media.

Glen Gilmore (@GlenGilmore) attorney, social media strategist and teacher of Digital Marketing, Crisis Commns, and Social Media Law at Rutgers, provided some comments for this article.  “Social media is particularly dangerous territory for alcohol brands. The FTC, industry and networks are struggling with it.” he noted, adding that his comments should not be considered legal advice.  Laws and rules will continue to evolve, and it will be the responsibility of marketers to keep up.

A review of the highlights of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) Guidance Note on Responsible Digital Marketing Communications (say that ten times fast!), reveals that a few common-sense precautions can go a long way toward keeping you out of trouble.

I. Digital marketing communications are intended for adults of legal purchase age.

Alcoholic beverage producers can attempt to satisfy this requirement by restricting Facebook page access to those 21 and older and Twitter followers to those 21 and older.

Age-Gating For Facebook:

  1. Edit Page
  2. Update Info
  3. Manage Permissions
  4. Age Restrictions (Choose alcohol-related).

Age-Gating For Twitter:

Twitter and Buddy Media partnered to create a Direct Message age-verification application.  New followers receive a message asking them to confirm that they are, indeed 21 years of age or older.  If they are not, they will be redirected to an educational site about underage drinking. If your company would like to use this feature, please sign up at to submit your brand for Twitter age-gating approval.

Obviously, any user can claim to be of any age, but using these methods at least shows a good-faith effort to comply with age limitations.

II. Digital marketing communications should be placed only in media where at least 71.6% of the audience is reasonably expected to be of the legal purchase age.

According to VentureBeat, for the major social networks,

  • About 85% of Facebook users are at least 25
  • About 78% of Twitter users are at least 25
  • Nearly 95% of LinkedIn users are at least 25 (surprised us, too!)
  • About 88% of Pinterest users are at least 25
  • In the US, about 45% of Google Plus users are UNDER 25.

Check Venture Beat’s list if you are interested in other networks.

III. Digital marketing communications on a site or web page controlled by the brand advertiser that involve direct interaction with a user should require age affirmation by the user prior to full user engagement of that communication to determine that the user is of legal purchase age.

See age-gating options above.  Again, not completely reliable, but the best option currently available.

IV. User-generated content on a site or web page controlled by the brand advertiser

User-generated content includes comments on your updates, replies and messages left on your page.  Guidelines suggest checking this content daily, or at least every five days.  But, you’d do that anyway, right?

V. Digital marketing communications that are intended to be forwarded by users should include instructions to individuals downloading the content that they should not forward these materials to individuals below the legal purchase age.

This one is difficult.  Facebook updates and Tweets are easy to share and ReTweet, with no customizable step between the click and the share to remind users to share appropriately.  This might be covered in the “About” and profile sections.  Do you have other suggestions?  Please comment below.

VI. Digital marketing communications must respect user privacy.

This one is pretty standard.  Make sure specifically “opt-in” before receiving information, and must again verify that they are, indeed of legal age.

VII. Digital marketing communications and product promotions must be transparent as  brand marketing by being identified as such.

That’s right, no made-up Facebook accounts pretending to be unbiased fans!

You can read all the DISCUS Digital Communications Guidelines here.

Use Common Sense When Marketing Alcoholic Beverages or other Adults-Only products – A Cautionary Tale

Social Media - Where Jeans and Fireworks can get you in trouble When do jeans and fireworks not mix? When it’s ruled that perception trumps intention.

Even if you are following the letter of the law, and you have the best lawyers money can retain, you can still get yourself in trouble.  “Industry guidance is important, but not dispositive. Levi’s ad in mag w 93% of readership over 18 cautionary tale See UK ASA”  noted Glen Gilmore (quoted above), adding that his comments should not be considered legal advice. The case mentioned involved a Levi’s ad showing  three young people holding lit fireworks.

“Levi Strauss & Co (Levi) said they acted responsibly in their advertising and therefore banned references to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or culturally or sexually offensive stereotypes in their ads, and it was never their intention to encourage any potentially dangerous behaviour for children.” Also noteworthy is that the fireworks used were intended to be hand-held, and were in an open space, far from flammable materials.

Their Findings: “The ASA (The UK’s independent regulator for advertising across all media) understood that the fireworks were designed to be hand held, but considered that that would not be clear to readers, who would simply see young people holding lit fireworks. We noted the fireworks were used in an open space and away from flammable objects, but considered that such safety precautions did not negate the main image of the ad, which was one of young people holding exploding fireworks. We understood that the models were aged over 19 years, but because they were shown from behind, considered that they could easily be mistaken for younger teenagers.”

The ASA ordered that, “The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Levi not to use easily emulated unsafe practices in their advertising in the future.” Read the case summary.

If your models or other subjects appear to be underage, find new ones. If your ads appear to target young people, don’t use them.  But, you knew that.

A future post will look at some businesses that have taken the plunge and what they’re doing right – and wrong.  Another will cover several ideas you can use for update and Tweet ideas.  Please like us on Facebook or subscribe to our blog to be notified of new posts.

If you are an alcoholic beverage producer or distributor, what guidelines have you set, or what is holding you back from embracing social media?

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About the Author Alisa Meredith (246 Posts)

As co-owner and chief inbound marketing consultant at Scalable Social Media, Alisa Meredith spends a lot of time keeping up with online marketing trends for the benefit of our customers. Computers have been a passion of hers since her first T1-99, so inbound and social media marketing is a natural fit.


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