AD+PR Research Examines Effects of Social Media Marketing of Alcohol

A study by a group of ComArtSci researchers investigates the effects of social media marketing of alcoholic beverages and found the more Facebook users become involved in alcohol-related pages or posts – whether it's a like, share or comment – the more likely they are to consider drinking alcohol.

As part of the research, more than 400 participants were asked their feelings after they encountered and responded to alcohol-related Facebook items.

"What we found is if people actually feel so engaged with that message and want to do something about it – like, share or comment – that it makes the likelihood of them thinking about drinking even greater," said Saleem Alhabash, assistant professor of Advertising and Public Relations, who led the study.

This research, which is published online in the journal Mass Communication and Society, has some serious implications, particularly in terms of introducing alcohol to the under-21 crowd.

"Alcohol content is everywhere," Alhabash said. "Underage drinkers will see these ads, think they're cool, and then like or share. They interact with it and start thinking about it."

Barriers to underage youth seeing alcohol ads online are "minimals," Alhabash said, adding that social media, by law, cannot target alcohol-related content to those under 21, but "once it's out there you don't own it. You can't control what happens to it."

As part of the study, research subjects were shown three Facebook pages – one that was an alcohol marketing Facebook post paired with a display promoting drinking; another coupled with an anti-drinking public service announcement; and another coupled with a non-drinking ad, such as an ad for a bank.

Participants who were interested in liking, sharing or commenting on the alcohol marketing messages showed greater intentions to consume alcohol. This was especially true when the marketing message they viewed already had high numbers of likes and shares from other Facebook users.

"Do intentions lead to actions?" asked Anna McAlister, assistant professor of Advertising and Public Relations and a member of the research team. "Intention is the single strongest predictor of actual behavior."

Oddly enough, the researchers found that when an alcohol-related status update was paired with an anti-drinking message, the person viewing it was more likely to consider drinking.

"It's ironic because the classical way of thinking about marketing, say on TV, is to advertise alongside alcohol brands," Alhabash said. "Our study says 'this might not be the way to do it.'"

Other members of the research team include Jef Richards, Chair of the Department of Advertising + Public Relations, Elizabeth Taylor Quilliam, associate professor of Advertising and Public Relations and Chen Lou, a Media and Information Studies doctoral student.