New guidelines for social media launched yesterday by the European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD) and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) set new standards of self-regulation in a challenging area for spirits marketers and take cooperation between the two organisations to a new level. Ben Cooper reports.

The recent announcement of Diageo’s US$10m-plus tie-up with Facebook underlines the potency and importance of social media for alcohol companies. This week has seen the spirits industry’s self-regulatory guidelines revised to take account of some of the ethical and reputational challenges these powerful media also proffer.

The European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD) and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), both of which include the world’s major spirits producers in their membership, yesterday unveiled common self-regulatory standards for the marketing of spirits through social networking media.

The self-regulatory guidelines restrict access to brand pages on sites such as Facebook to users over 18, and commit companies to advertising on other channels only when more than 70% of users are over 18. Companies are also required to remove inappropriate user-generated content from their sites within 48 hours, while brand websites must display clear privacy policies, include responsible drinking messages, and continue to use age verification to comply with national rules.

Speaking to just-drinks, EFRD chairman Alan Butler describes agreeing this common approach to social media as “a significant step”.

Indeed, it represents the first time the US and EU self-regulatory bodies have collaborated so closely on such guidelines. “Historically, there would have been a lot of information sharing and cooperation,” Butler says, “but this is the first time there has been a formal agreement where there are common guidelines and principles between the two organisations.”

He says there had been a will on the part of member companies to align the two organisations’ work. “Both organisations were working concurrently on an approach to digital and social media and, given the shared membership, it was a company-proposed exercise to try to initially align, and ultimately agree on, these common approaches.”

Clearly, a key factor behind that desire was the global nature of the media concerned. As Butler puts it, the new guidelines “recognise the reality of the scale and coverage of the internet”. 

DISCUS president Peter Cressy says: “Social media has become an increasingly important marketing channel to reach adult consumers of legal purchase age. These new digital guidelines reflect our companies’ strong commitment to extend their responsible marketing practices to these emerging media platforms.”

The global scope of online media not only makes an overarching international approach sensible for alcohol companies but has also made this a challenging area for national regulators. It is therefore an excellent opportunity, Butler says, to demonstrate how internationally-coordinated self-regulation can be effective “where traditional regulation might have failed or might not be able to travel.”

The development of the guidelines has not just involved dialogue between DISCUS and the EFRD. The EFRD points out that it has consulted widely with external stakeholders, including DG (Sanco), the World Health Organization and NGOs such as Eurocare and Alcohol Focus Scotland. Meanwhile, bodies such as the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) were also involved.

While the EFRD said it did not consult directly with Facebook, it pointed out that DISCUS had been in contact with digital media partners “to make sure the rules were technically sound”. Also, Butler points out that much of the industry dialogue with social media providers comes through the commercial relationships spirits manufacturers have with those companies.

Regarding the NGO view of the new guidelines, UK alcohol charity Alcohol Concern gave only a qualified welcome, saying that the voluntary code “is helpful in ensuring that the drinks industry maintains a certain level of responsibility when using social media”. However, it believes the ease with which young people “sidestep the ‘age-gating’ of official alcohol pages by entering a false date of birth” remains a concern.

The charity says the guidelines still do not “tackle the core problem of young people being able to access this material”. In a statement to just-drinks, Alcohol Concern continues: “Until an effective means of restricting access to over eighteens to this material can be put in place, Alcohol Concern supports the removal of all paid advertising from web and social media sites.” 

Another concern among campaigners is the control over user-generated material on the web. Undoubtedly, the inclusion of user-generated material, which Butler describes as “one of the most significant” elements in the new guidelines, is clearly a critical development, given how central such input is to these media.

However, while the commitment to remove inappropriate user-generated material from brand sites will be welcome, a problem still remains regarding the considerable amount of user-generated material on the internet at large which depicts alcohol misuse. 

Butler says it would be “unrealistic and unreasonable to try to influence, shape and ultimately control all user-generated content” on the internet. He believes “the right balance” has been struck by applying the same standards for user-generated content on brand pages as for company-generated material and removing within 48 hours any content that does not meet those criteria. “I think there’s a limit to what reasonable standards of self-regulation can cover,” he adds. 

The salient point here is that the alcohol misuse seen widely on the Internet is a reflection of that which goes on in society in general. The industry has a role to play in tackling that but so do all number of other institutions. Indeed, Butler points out that social media feature prominently in the industry’s attempts to promote responsible consumption, such as the Campaign for Smarter Drinking.

“I think social marketing is part of the solution to deglamourising that celebration of alcohol misuse, which the Internet is always going to enable,” he says. “And I don’t think it is reasonable to expect self-regulatory controls or even regulatory controls to manage that.”

Butler is perhaps wise to manage expectations. The Internet is a hard medium to police but, while it may be difficult, it is not impossible. 

And in tackling the depiction of alcohol abuse on the Internet at large, the service providers clearly have a very important role to play and responsibilities to assume. Campaigners may suggest that industry has gone for the low-hanging fruit with its guidelines. However, as Butler points out, spirits companies are focusing on what is under their direct control. Arguably, the wider problem of the depiction of alcohol abuse on the Internet is an issue that service providers must also actively address.