On Monday, @BudweiserIndia tweeted out a cheery message to its 6,000 followers: “How are you coping with your #MondayBlues! Keep your #Buds close and watch them disappear!” Does a tweet urging beer consumption constitute advertising? It’s not quite clear. The rules banning the advertising of liquor products are at least about half a century old and predate the computer age. Social media is, naturally enough, a grey area. No matter, liquor companies have been happily making use of the platform. Diageo, the world’s biggest liquor company, the UB Group’s Kingfisher beer, Budweiser, Tuborg, SAB Miller, Johnnie Walker are all active on Facebook and Twitter, using them to spread the message about their brands, complete with visuals. Kingfisher tweeted to its 44,000 followers on Wednesday from @kingfisherworld: “Okay so beerheads, here we go. Remember that 1st #KFBeer you ever had? We want to know the story! Tweet to #HowIMetMyKFBeer right away!” Last year, Diageo’s vodka brand Smirnoff, using the handle @SmirnoffIndia, had this to say: “You don’t need an occasion to gift someone gold! Treat your friends to the royal taste of Smirnoff Gold today.”
Samar Singh Shekhawat, senior V-P (marketing), UB, said: “The guidelines do not clearly define ban on social media and there are no clear clauses for liquor companies by the I&B (information and broadcasting) ministry on social media and online advertising.”
However, he added that liquor companies tend to self-regulate by strictly following the age-restriction policies of the sites. “So whoever comes on to the social media platform are well within the drinking age limit. Whatever is not allowed on mainstream media we do not put on as digital advertising unless it is age gated,” Shekhawat said. However, while brands ask consumers to enter their age or date of birth in order to access their websites, there is no way to restrict the visibility of tweets. A top executive at another leading liquor brand said, “The maximum traction that social media gets is from our core target audience. The absence of any law has made it easier for us to interact with them directly.” Arvind Sharma, former chairman of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), said social media messages from a manufacturer qualify as advertising.
“On the whole any message put out by a company is an ad,” he said. “It is not an ad if it is created by the consumer. While ASCI is yet to receive any complaint against liquor brand related to social media activities, “such messages should not be allowed as social media is also a form of media”, he said. Although the rules haven’t been amended in the last 50 years, the spirit of the law can still be implemented, said Prem Rajani, managing partner of legal firm Rajani, Singhania & Partners. “While one may argue that you need a clear statute to pin them, I would say the current statute if interpreted properly should be enough to pin them down.” The information and broadcasting ministry hadn’t responded to queries as of press time. Interestingly, tobacco brands in India which are also barred from advertising, have not taken the social media route. Even international brands such as Marlboro don’t have any social media engagement with Indian consumers.