Australia’s alcohol industry has been accused of using social media influencers to promote their products, without disclosing their sponsorship. The accusations come from VicHealth, a health promotion foundation based in the state of Victoria, Australia.
Responding to Meininger’s, VicHealth said they had identified two Australian wine companies they believe are doing this.
What’s the accusation?
VicHealth research looked at the accounts of the top 70 Australian Instagram influencers and their alcohol-related content. It found almost three-quarters of influencers featured alcoholic drinks in their posts, yet only a quarter fully disclosed when they had been paid by alcohol brands.
“The posts we are most concerned about are ones that look for all intents and purposes like an alcohol ad,” a spokesperson for VicHealth told Meininger's in an email. The posts use “the brand’s official hashtag and handles, featuring branded props etc—but aren’t declared as an ad or paid post.”
According to an earlier statement, “Alcoholic products such as branded glasses of wine or bottles of champagne were often featured as props by influencers, further blurring the lines of what are considered sponsored posts.” The statement went on to say that with “Instagram and its influencers particularly popular with young people, the findings show the alcohol industry is using social media as a key tool to promote their products as cool and glamorous to an impressionable audience.”
How big is the audience?
As reported by Meininger’s, more than 25m businesses have realised that Instagram offers a chance to meet their customers, build brand loyalty and potentially sell their goods, particularly businesses with photogenic products. Social Media Today reports that influencer marketing is set to be worth $10bn in the US by 2020.
With a population of less than 25m, Australia has a far smaller number of Instagram users than the US, but social media stars can be equally influential. Top Australian Instagram stars can have more than nine million followers and can attract nearly 300,000 ‘likes’ for just one post.
According to a Guardian article, VicHealth’s study found that there were 477 mentions of alcohol by Australia’s top 70 Instagram influencers over 12 months, of which “12% were likely sponsored mentions”. Of those, “61% were disclosed and 39% were undisclosed, meaning they did not feature a hashtag such as #sponsored #ad or #collab or use the “paid partnership option” for brands.
“Cocktails, wine and Champagne are by far the most popular types of alcohol featured editorially and in sponsored posts,” the report found. “There is evidence that influencers use alcoholic drinks as a prop of sorts to add glamour and sophistication to their images.” In other words, these drinks are appearing in images posted by lifestyle influencers – who have the largest audiences – rather than, or as well as, bloggers who specialise in food and drink.
Since March 2017, Australian social media influencers are meant to clearly label when their content is sponsored, under the code of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA). The AANA is, however, a self-regulating body and the code is voluntary.
“What’s most concerning is that influencers and brands can get away with not disclosing paid content, making it really hard for young people to discern when they’re being sold an ad,” said Dr Lyn Robert, VicHealth’s acting chief executive, describing the tactics as “underhanded”.
VicHealth has launched a five-week state-wide competition calling on young Victorian to find ways to confront the alcohol industry about their social media tactics. There are A$1,000 in prizes available each week.
Can VicHealth prove their accusations?
When asked by Meininger’s whether VicHealth could prove that wine companies were paying influencers, a spokesperson wrote, “The only way to know for certain is an influencer has been paid for an alcohol brand to promote their products is if they declare it.”
The spokesperson added that, “There were wine companies featured in the study, including Chandon and Jacob’s Creek.”
Neither Jacob’s Creek nor the public relations agency that handles Domaine Chandon responded to a request for comment.
US influencers are required by law to disclose any commercial relationships linked to products, services or brands they are promoting on social media feeds. Europe has a patchwork of recommendations and laws that vary by country.