Study sheds light on power of social media alcohol ads

Alcohol companies should limit or restrict the ability for users to comment on adverts posted to social media sites, according to a new study that highlights the power of positive, or negative, enforcement by peers can have.

According to research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, alcohol advertisements on social media sites such as Facebook are more effective if they have received positive, pro-drinking comments from fellow users, which were found to boost the desire for users to consume alcohol.

Carried out by Dr Jonathan Noel and Dr Thomas Babor at the UConn School of Medicine, the study involved 120 young adults, aged 21 to 24, living in the United States.

Each participant viewed four online ads (actual beer advertisements posted on Facebook). The researchers then chose certain comments that would appear with the ads – either pro- or anti-drinking comments.

After the participants viewed each advertisement, they were asked whether they thought the ad would increase their desire to drink, and if they would Like or Share the ad they viewed.

The lowest desire to drink was found after participants were exposed to ads with anti-drinking comments. In comparison, the desire to drink was 3.5 times higher after participants saw an ad with pro-drinking comments.

Social media users who view alcohol ads are also more than twice as likely to “Like” or “Share” an ad when it has pro-drinking comments attached, the new study shows.

While this might seem like an obvious summation, it reinforces the power that commenters, genuine or paid as can be the case with social media marketing, can have on the success and influence of an advert.

“There is more information on social media than just a post or a message,” says Dr Jonathan Noel, the study’s lead author. “We are exposed to how other users respond to a post, and it is those responses that can influence your desire to drink.

“Our findings suggest that comments left by other social media users may either reinforce or negate the message from a post,” adding: “It’s fascinating really. Not only might these comments influence the desire to drink, but they also can increase the reach and virality of the original message.”

Consequently, researchers suggest that the industry needs to “improve the voluntary self-regulatory system that governs its advertising”, possibly by limiting or banning comments on social media advertising to protect users who may be susceptible to pro-drinking comments, and also embrace the power of their comments feed to promote messages of responsible drinking.

“Heavy alcohol users and those who are alcohol dependent may be the most susceptible to the potential effects of pro-drinking comments,” the researchers said.

The ads, coupled with positive comments about drinking, may serve as alcohol cues “and an increased desire to drink after exposure to alcohol cues may predict relapse after treatment for alcoholism”, the researchers claim.

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