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Booze giant's Facebook tie-up sparks ad concerns

Won't somebody please think of the children?

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Global alcohol retailer Diageo has announced that it is stepping up its multimillion dollar partnership with Facebook, leading to fears of booze adverts reaching young audiences.

Diageo said that its current deal with Facebook has seen US sales of Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Baileys, Crown Royal and Jose Cuervo Margaritas jump by 20 per cent, while Smirnoff became "the number one beverage alcohol brand on Facebook worldwide".

“Facebook has been a natural fit for us from day one. Working in such close collaboration will allow us to really maximise consumer participation at scale in our campaigns, particularly in emerging markets," Andy Fennell, chief marketing officer at Diageo, said in a canned statement.

The tie-up has led to concern due to the high number of children with Facebook accounts who might see the pro-booze adverts.

“This greater relationship between a major drinks industry firm and Facebook demonstrates the power that social media has to increase alcohol sales, and the corresponding investment that the drinks industry is prepared to put into these channels," Alcohol Concern chief Don Shenker told The Reg.

"While marketing alcohol to adults is an acceptable activity, there is considerable evidence that people under the legal drinking age are coming into contact with, or even becoming involved in (as so-called ‘brand ambassadors’) alcohol marketing through social media. Not only are under-18s able to sidestep the age-gating of official alcohol pages, but by its nature, social media leads to a large amount of unofficial user-created material promoting drinks products and drinking that has no age restriction at all," he added.

Facebook rules say you must be over 13 years old to create a profile, but numerous studies have shown that children frequently ignore the requirement and Facebook spokespeople have often stressed the difficulty of enforcing age restrictions online.

Even without the under-13s, a large proportion of Facebook users are under 21, the legal drinking age in the US, or under 18, the legal drinking age in the UK.

Figures from Ofcom released in April 2011 showed that 28 per cent of UK kids between the ages of 8 and 11 had set up a page or profile on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, Piczo, Twitter or Hi5 in 2010, and 21 per cent were interested in doing so. And the 12-to-15-year-old category was hugely represented on social networks, with 80 per cent of them holding profiles in 2010.

Globally, according to figures from insidefacebook.com, 20.6 per cent of users are 13 to 17 years old and 25.8 per cent are aged 18 to 25.

In August, Alcohol Concern, which is a UK charity, had called for official alcohol marketing on social networks to be banned, saying online age verification wasn't stopping kids from seeing booze promotions.

“In contrast with television advertising, which is explicit, social media marketing can be subtle, and tied in with young people’s relationships with friends and peers," Shenker said today.

"Because there is currently no reliable way in which drinks manufacturers can ensure that young people are not exposed to and influenced by these marketing messages, Alcohol Concern supports a ban on online advertising and marketing of alcohol.”

Facebook's spokesperson told The Register: "Advertising rules state that alcohol ads can be shown in publications where up to 25 per cent of people may be underage. While a small proportion of people on Facebook may lie about their age, we believe that the accuracy of our age restrictions is far more effective than on any other service."

Diageo has not responded to requests for comment. ®

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