Regulating 'the Daily Me' – alcohol regulation in an age of social media

In his recent book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (2018), Cass Sunstein refers to an idea first mooted in the 1990s of ‘the Daily Me’ by MIT technologist, Nicholas Negroponte.

In the world of ‘the Daily Me’, you no longer took the news presented to you on TV or in the paper but rather you decided in advance what you would like to see. If you were a sports fanatic you might only want sports news; similarly, if you were only interested in religion or fashion and so on.

While in the 1990s this seemed an unlikely scenario, we have effectively arrived at ‘the Daily Me’ through social media. More and more of us spend time online and increasingly messages are managed and directed at our interests. Companies can collect and process more data than ever before, which allows them to refine their advertising platforms to create more specifically targeted advertising and to easily measure its success.

One current debate around the impact of social media has been what influence it had on the EU referendum debate. We have evidence of the effectiveness of social media on the Leave campaign, where there were twice as many Brexit supporters on Instagram and they were five times more active than Remainers. On Twitter, the Leavers outnumbered the Remainers 7 to 1.

The point about social media is that it is just that, it is shared and liked in a way that can create the perception of even wider-ranging support.

Then there is the issue of what the messages contained and whether they were ‘true’ or not. The fact of the matter is that it makes little difference now, but also what might have been done if there had been many complaints at the time? Probably very little because of the nature of our advertising regulation.

The fact is that social media is primarily about advertising and it is a very different medium to broadcast ads on TV, where we watch in-programme breaks, often for products that might be of no interest to us. This is why it is time to rethink advertising regulation in the UK.

Our research with Alcohol Research UK focused on social media advertising for alcohol and nightclubs. Alcohol advertising is already strictly controlled in terms of what you can say and who you should be saying it to, but social media is used by all ages and so watershed-type discussions are pointless. There are a number of problems with the UK Code of Practice. It is a reactive process with the Advertising Standards Authority responding to complaints and then adjudicating submissions. But social media is ephemeral and often time specific, such as advertising a special promotional night at a club. Social media ads are quick and cheap to make. Therefore the punishment of removing an ad is frankly pointless as it has already done its work.

Although social media marketing posts by alcohol brands are likely to be more accessible to the general public, relatively few people beyond a youthful user group are likely to witness posts by venues. A number of the posts in our sample would probably not be acceptable within the terms of the UK Advertising Code of Practice, but they are unlikely to generate complaints since their audience is limited. The sheer volume of images of young guests posted on the social media pages of venues (especially young women in glamorous poses) may also contravene the Advertising Code of Practice, since many appear to be under 25.

As social media is so highly targeted, the people that see the ads are unlikely to be those that would complain about them. Without wanting to over-generalise, it is difficult to imagine many young people complaining about cheap alcohol.

These points all raise important questions about the effectiveness of the current regulatory system and suggest that a new form of regulation is needed to keep pace with the impact of advertising on social media platforms.

Professor Isabelle Szmigin
Professor of Marketing, Deputy Dean of Birmingham Business School