Alcohol benefits from an association with sport, said the authors, with its positive themes of identity and camaraderie winning over consumers. This link also provides a powerful marketing platform, particularly when combined with the collaborative and immersive nature of social media.
Moreover, they claimed that the drinks industry is also able to avoid regulatory codes surrounding alcohol promotion by using social media to reach consumers.
The findings come shortly after another research team, from Monash University, found that a quarter of young Australians followed specific alcohol brands or retailers on social media, and were more likely to engage in riskier drinking.
The authors said that their findings, based on 1,000 participants aged 15-29, stressed the need to investigate new strategies to manage alcohol marketing on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and ensure such pages are neither accessible to nor targeting underage social media users.
The latest research, by a team from RMIT University in Melbourne, set out to examine how alcohol brands have been using sport as part of their their communication activities on social media.
Social sites are now among the key players in promoting alcohol, and give the drinks industry the ability to reach millions of consumers—including underage drinkers, it found.
Brands use a range of mediums, such as smartphone apps, push notifications, trivia and tipping competitions, celebrity endorsements, promotional merchandise, videos, memes and co-created content linked to sport to engage with consumers and gain access to their extended social networks.
Despite extensive research exploring alcohol advertising and sponsorship through sport, minimal attention has been given to digital platforms, the study, published in Drug and Alcohol Review, said.
Their study undertook a qualitative content analysis to examine the social media activity of alcohol brands sponsoring Australian rules football, rugby league and cricket, the country’s three biggest spectator sports.
Four sport-related social media strategies were identified through which alcohol brands solicit interaction with consumers, often involving the co-creation of content and social activation.
These strategies act as “calls to action”, and through the association of sport and alcohol encourage consumers to engage in competition, collaboration, celebration and consumption. This approach is further strengthened by communications which draw upon themes of identity and camaraderie to resonate with the consumer, the researchers found.
Kate Westberg, an RMIT associate professor and one of the authors of the study, said the industry's social media strategies were carefully developed to go beyond promoting their product.
"The ultimate goal appears to be to merge the drinking culture with sport culture," she said.
"They seek to normalise consumption by using social media to present drinking as an integral part of the sport experience whether spectatorship, celebration or commiseration.”
However, the executive director of drinks industry body Alcohol Beverages Australia said that research shows that young people learn about drinking from their family and peers, not advertising. The latter is used by manufacturers to get people to choose one product over another.
Fergus Taylor told the Herald Sun that “age-gating” blocks on social media networks were in place to ensure that underage audiences were not shown alcohol advertising under the terms of the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme.
“Instead of trying to childproof the world we should focus on giving our children the knowledge to understand the choices they’ll be faced with and the consequences of what they decide,” he said.
Yet Michael Thorn, chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, claims that self-regulation isn’t working with the alcohol industry able to co-opt Australia’s sporting culture and “manipulate” consumers.
"The online space is even less regulated than traditional media. Self-regulation isn't working, it isn't protecting children from harmful alcohol advertising and those harms will continue until such time that the Commonwealth government steps in,” he said.