Alcohol companies are reaching underage drinkers through online games, social media, and other digital marketing, according to a report issued by consumer groups.

“Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age,” released by the Center for Digital Democracy and Berkeley Media Studies Group of the Public Health Institute, requests that the Federal Trade Commission investigate digital marketing by alcohol companies.

The report claims that alcohol companies are targeting consumers through the use of mobile phone applications, virtual online communities, online video, and social media to “harvest behavioral and other data on consumers.”

“Today, alcohol brands (like other major advertisers) are promoting their products across a wide spectrum of new platforms – from social networks to mobile phones to immersive, virtual communities,” the report states.

The report argues that the current self-regulatory advertising standards for the alcohol industry are outdated in the constantly burgeoning world of social media.

“Marketing is now fully integrated into daily communications and social relationships, not cordoned off in a special category of ‘advertising,’” the report states.

It cites examples of companies marketing their products in arenas dominated by underage consumers, such as a recent Smirnoff “Tea Partay” ad which received millions of hits on YouTube, the creation of a virtual word by Heineken where consumers play branded games and earn points, and an Absolut iPhone app that allows users to create or order the perfect drink and share it with friends through a social network.

The report also expressed concern about the growing practice by companies of using “brand ambassadors” as well as the ease of underage consumers to get around alcohol companies’ age-verification processes online.

A simple math calculation enables those under 21 to change their date of birth, and “in the new digital environment, such mechanisms are not only inadequate but increasingly irrelevant,” the report argues.

To read the report, click here.

Why it matters: The report notes that the Food and Drug Administration is considering promulgating guidelines for the Internet-related marketing of drugs and health products as an illustration of the growing concern by regulators about online marketing, and it urges the FTC to undertake a similar investigation. “The FTC and other regulators need to determine whether alcohol beverage ad targeting is reaching specific young people and their networks, providing a complete picture of the industry’s online data collection practices – including whether their privacy policies are accurate,” the report states. The report offers several suggestions, including the collection by the FTC of annual expenditure and exposure metrics by leading alcohol companies in the realms of digital media and advertising to include social media (similar to the current requirements for tobacco companies). In addition, the report suggests that alcohol companies and trade associations should be required to publish annual “transparency reports” of their actions in digital and virtual marketing as well as the data they collect about Internet users. And alcohol companies should also be required to observe a 15 percent maximum youth audience standard based on users aged 12 to 20 for placing advertising in digital media, the report recommends.