Can Online Advertisements of Alcohol be Restricted?

At the European Parliament we are currently discussing the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). In connection with these discussions the issues of different platforms and online advertising have come up. When reading Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski’s proposals to restrict online advertising and comparing them with the discussions under way in the European Parliament, I found myself thinking the following.

Alcohol policies differ greatly by states. Among other things, the AVMSD sets minimum standards for television advertising, although Member States are given the possibility to apply stricter rules, as television is generally clearly confined to the territory of one state. On the contrary, social media platforms usually have an Europe-wide or even a global reach. Should each state have its own rules for these platforms and is this even possible or feasible?

What sets internet advertising apart from television advertising is its dynamic quality. A person sitting in front of a TV set sees a continuous flow of what is shown. On the internet, however, users move around. Internet advertising is getting more and more personalised. This means that ads are shown based on which pages users have visited and what they have shown interest in. The regulation of online advertising should also be dynamic and follow the same logic.

Minister Ossinovski has noted that similar restrictions already apply in Finland, but a closer look reveals that in Finland online advertisements of alcohol are still legal. Only the use of consumer feedback mechanisms is prohibited. In Finland, the adverts for alcohol are also allowed on television and radio, but not before 10 p.m. This implies that the aim is to restrict subjecting minors to alcohol advertising.

Minister Ossinovski has said that the Finns have come to an agreement with Google and Facebook so that alcohol advertising in Finnish will not be distributed via these channels. It remains unclear whether this was an agreement or a legal act. If it was an agreement then how transparently was it reached? According to Finnish legislation, alcohol advertising is not prohibited on social media. So it can be assumed that the Finns concluded that a total ban is not possible. Moreover, when justifying their attempts to make their law on alcohol advertising more strict, the Finns often refer to studies which state that “the advertising of alcohol MAY influence young people to buy alcohol” or “advertising SEEMS TO HAVE an effect on minors”. What has greater influence, surely, is how minors use the internet and what their previous experiences related to alcohol are.

Restricting advertising on social media primarily serves the purpose of decreasing the number of ads seen by minors. Alternatively, it is possible to set up parental controls. As the name suggests, it is first and foremost a tool for parents, enabling them to limit access to certain pages or content when their child uses the internet. This tool could also be applied to advertisements. The most recent applications even allow us to monitor what our child’s friends are sharing, for example on Facebook or Twitter, and to deny certain content, if needed. If we are concerned about the health of minors, wouldn’t it be wiser to advocate better choices for their parents instead of opting for general bans and over-regulation?

All restrictions should be based on sound evidence that demonstrates the volume of alcohol advertising online, how it affects people, and what the impact of a ban would be. It is equally important to ascertain whether such restriction would be feasible in real life. Experts around the world have questioned what actually counts as alcohol advertising on social media. There is a very fine line between general content and advertising on new platforms. While on television we can easily differentiate between a programme and an ad, on social media the distinction is often less clear.

Restricting internet advertising is also closely related to the issue of online shopping. If I go to the online shop of a supermarket and select items to be added to my shopping cart, are they then allowed to show me the selection of alcohol that the store carries? If not, such regulation is bound to have an impact on e-commerce. And if  regular stores are allowed to display alcohol adverts in their windows, then the prohibition of a similar activity on the internet discriminates against e-commerce operators.

Furthermore, people share a lot of news content via social media channels. If I click on a piece of news and there is an alcohol ad in the online news publication, should this be regulated as well?
Looking at the whole package, there seems to be a great risk of over-regulation and it may not work in real life or produce the desired results.

AVMSD. Source: European Commission

AVMSD. Source: European Commission

The opinion article was published on 27 January 2017 in the online publication of the Estonian daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht.