Social Media and The Law

As social media becomes more and more important as a marketing tool, the unique circumstances surrounding the sales of beverage alcohol make many operators wary. At the upcoming VIBE Conference, Eliabeth DeConti of the law firm GreyRobinson, will try to make what can be a murky area clearer.

Social media and beverage alcohol can make an interesting mix these days.

And what I want to explain to attendees is that this is a topic that is in development, as to how state regulators fit this phenomenon into laws that are already on the books. There are no laws which directly address by name social media marketing. However, there are some regulations that are general enough that one could apply them. In some states they have, but it has happened on a case by case basis, or sometimes when one party files a complaint against another.

Are there good ways for operators to get up to speed on how these rules might impact them?

There is a very helpful best practices guide published by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (Discus) that addresses some guidelines for the industry to follow, and I think because we don’t have many other resources that are published that even a lot of regulators look to those guidelines. There’s no equivalent fopr chain restaurants, but you can extrapolate some good material from that Discus document and apply it to a restaurant context.

Can you give an example?

Assume you have a restaurant chain that operates a Facebook page and may want to advertise their happy hour specials. They have to be careful not to advertise an underage audience - from a technology standpoint, they can build in an age dating tool to the alcohol ads they publish. While they wouldn’t want to do the same for any appetizer promotions, they may wish to do for alcohol.

Social media is all about sharing, and most young individuals don’t think about how old their friends are when they do share.

Right. In case someone shares with an inappropriate recipient, there are ways to build in safeguards, or at least some cautionary language so if some sort of forwarding goes on beyond the restaurant’s control, the defense is that the restaurant made it very clear that this was advertising for legal age consumers only. The most important thing to create barriers.

What are the most important issues to consider?

There are a few issues to think about when developing an alcohol campaign on social media. One is making sure you’re talking to a legal audience. The second is a temperance concern - in social media it’s possible for friends or fans to post their own content. One of the debates we have with clients is, should we allow people to post their own content? Marketing people who want to develop active dialogue and hear what those consumers are interested in are all for that or anything about the brand to go viral. The danger in alcohol is what if someone distorts your message? What if a young person posts a photo of himself and his friends slumped over at your bar saying “Great time getting trashed at Retailer X last night!” Obviously, that’s not good and a restaurant needs to have a plan in place how to respond to that kind of negative post.

Third, there are tied house concerns about social media and advertising. There are misconceptions that just because conversations are happening on internet platform, the rules don’t apply as they do elsewhere. We have to worry about the same type of supplier funding issues at social media as we do with other formats and those issues do come up.

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