Alcohol advertising is so seamlessly blended into social media and smartphone technology that government will struggle to regulate it, a researcher says.
Massey University psychology lecturer Antonia Lyons was reporting the findings of the first New Zealand research on alcohol marketing on social networking sites at the "Perils of Alcohol Marketing" conference in Wellington.
A law change in December created new offences for promoting excessive consumption of alcohol or the targeting of minors in alcohol advertising.
But this would be strained by the way beer, wine and spirits companies marketed their products on sites such as Facebook.
In a study of 154 people aged between 18 and 25, associate professor Lyons found that social media extended young people's drinking habits.
"Facebook was embedded in these people's drinking cultures. They used Facebook to gain information about drinking, places, people, products to organise when they go out, to share photos about drinking ... to interact while engaging in a drinking session. They use it to connect with alcohol brands and products and to receive alcohol promotions."
Alcohol marketing was seamlessly integrated with users' conversations, photographs, and comments.
"There's a lot of viral marketing going on. The distinction between whether the online materials are made by a user or a brand is blurred. It seems like it is coming from a friend and not an alcohol product.
"Despite the vast amount of alcohol products, events and marketing on the internet, and particularly on Facebook, this content just wasn't viewed as marketing."
Because the marketing was not as explicit, it was much less likely to raise people's defences as consumers.
Facebook users, including minors, could make statements on company's pages, or discuss particular brands in ways which the industry could not.
"Users can say 'I'm so drunk - this is fantastic' in a way that brands never say it. And that's what happens on these Facebook walls," she said.
The research indicated that new laws to criminalise the promotion of binge drinking or drinking among young people could be difficult to enforce online.
Companies were increasing their promotions in social media. Drinks giant Diageo now invested a fifth of its marketing budget in social media, and attributed a 20 per cent increase in sales to this strategy.
The rise of GPS-enabled smartphone technology also meant people were constantly logged into social media, and guided by increasingly sophisticated alcohol-related apps. Because websites were continually mining data from users, this allowed alcohol companies and bars to tailor their advertising, such as offering discounts to people when they approached a bar.
Professor Lyons said: "What this does is raises alcohol marketing to a whole new level, and at the same time it raises serious public health concerns."
The conference heard that the French Government, which enforced strict bans on all alcohol advertising, recently lost a legal challenge against Facebook after attempting to restrict alcohol marketing on the website.By Isaac Davison @Isaac_Davison Email Isaac