Is New Zealand doing enough to regulate digital alcohol marketing?
Sally Casswell is a professor of public health policy at Massey University.
ANALYSIS: The new world health organization published report on the regulation of cross-border alcohol marketing raises alarm bells for countries like Australia and New Zealand, given their leniency towards alcohol advertising.
Alcohol is widely consumed in Australasia, but there are ongoing tensions over how much restriction, if any, should be placed on the marketing of such products.
Australia and New Zealand are at the frantic end of the marketing continuum. Both countries rely on industry-led policy in the form of voluntary codes – an approach identified as insufficient by the WHO report.
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What is cross-border alcohol marketing?
Alcohol marketing, created and disseminated in one country and spread across borders in others, is commonly used by multinational corporations striving to increase sales and normalize alcohol as a everyday product. Much of this advertising takes place in the sphere of digital media.
The increased use of these media platforms by alcohol companies allows them to access cheap advertising opportunities. For as low as US$2an advertising campaign based in Australia could reach 1,000 young people profiled as interested in alcohol, for example.
Digital media marketing has also increased the impact of these messages.
Target the individual
The rise of these advertisements testifies to the effectiveness of “personalized marketing”. Businesses can now target “lookalike” individuals and audiences.
This approach is made possible by the huge amount of data collected when we interact together, buy products and indicate our interests and passions through our clicks and likes.
This data is extremely valuable to marketers and alcohol companies. This gives them insight into the best time of day, the best brand of alcohol, and the best type of marketing message to send us.
All groups in society are likely to be bombarded with messages encouraging the purchase and consumption of alcohol.
Digital advertising can target everyone: teenagers looking for brands that embody their identity; young adults, Australia and New Zealand’s heaviest ‘occasional drinkers’, some of whom develop drinking habits that may be difficult to change later in life; and adults of all ages who wish to reduce their consumption, often for health reasons.
Digital media has become a global marketing environment in which the “buy” button – with home delivery and often without age or inebriation verification – provides a seamless marketing and distribution system.
In New Zealand, sold online increased significantly during Covid-19 shutdowns, especially among heavy drinkers.
Enter the Metaverse
The alcohol industry today shows its initiative by entering the emerging market metaverse. To understand the metaverse, according to a commentatoryou should: “Take today’s social media, add a touch of fancy 3D, fold in a plethora of options for entertainment and gaming, top it all off with data-driven personalization, and you’re set takeout your order from an oversized social media network, the Metaverse.
In terms of marketing, this offers a new opportunity. The biometric data essential for a virtual reality experience is also available to develop »biometric psychography“, allowing for even greater personalization of advertising.
Virtual alcohol brands created and used by avatars in the metaverse support the development of real-life brand allegiance, and virtual reality will transform e-commerce experiences and increase the power of sponsorship.
AB InBev, the world’s largest alcohol company, was an early adopter of the metaverse. One of its brands, Stella Artois, sponsors the Australian platform Zed Run on which virtual horses can be raced, bred and traded. The Zed Run platform experienced 1000% growth in early 2021.
Regulate to reduce the harm of alcohol
The digital world is extremely dynamic. It is also opaque to most policy makers and public health practitioners. It is telling that there is no reference to the metaverse as an opportunity for cross-border alcohol marketing in the WHO report.
There is an urgent need to discuss how policy makers should better understand the risks associated with the targeted marketing of dangerous products such as alcohol.
The WHO report outlines various partial and unsuccessful approaches to regulating digital media marketing.
Attempts, such as Finland regulation of branded material shared by users, failed because they did not interfere with the basic architecture of social media platforms, which relies on engagement through sharing and liking.
The most successful examples offered by the WHO report are countries like Norway, which have imposed a complete ban on the marketing of alcohol, including in digital media.
The report emphasizes the need for oversight and enforcement, suggesting ways to penalize liquor companies for marketing violations.
The support provided by international agreements such as the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control is identified as a possible model for future discussions.
The response to tobacco marketing provides a good and largely effective model for policy makers and policy makers. That said, the public health goal for alcohol is not equivalent to the smoke-free goal. Proponents are not trying to completely eliminate alcohol.
However, there are parallel arguments for creating a healthier media environment through regulation to prevent the promotion of alcoholic products via increasingly sophisticated technological and psychological tools.
These products are important causes of reduced well-being, and this marketing increases consumption and therefore harm. The messages of the WHO report are timely and should be heeded.