Are bottle shops using Twitter to encourage drinking during COVID-19?

Jeremy Lasek –  PHAA


The impacts of COVID-19 on our lives have been all encompassing. There have been varying reports on its impacts on mental health, dietary habits, regular physical exercise and alcohol consumption, particularly under the effect of long lockdowns.

While traditional media remains a key marketing tool to promote alcohol sales the growing use of social media in the last decade has provided a new platform to sell alcohol.

With the number of global social media users increasing 32.2% in just five years, it isn’t surprising that alcohol advertising on social media has grown substantially as well.

In Australia, since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to sweeping public health measures to reduce community transmissions. These measures included preventing on-site alcohol venues (e.g. bars and pubs) operating during periods of higher community transmission. But, right throughout the pandemic, packaged liquor retailers (or ‘bottle shops’) remained open with few restrictions apart from some self-imposed purchasing limits to deter ‘panic buying’ and social distancing among customers and staff.

Preliminary reports suggested retailers took advantage of COVID-19 on social media to promote alcohol consumption, with the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) finding that sponsored alcohol advertisements were displayed on a person’s Facebook and Instagram accounts every 35 seconds in just one hour on a Friday night.

A follow-up report, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH), focused on the Twitter social media platform and all posts – sponsored and non-sponsored – by bottle shops in NSW. The aim of the study was to determine bottle shop retailers increased their number of posts during COVID-19, or used COVID-19 to promote alcohol sales on Twitter.

The frequency of Tweets was examined between January to April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic in Australia, and compared to the same period during the previous two years. Tweets covering the first COVID-19 lockdown period (13 March 2020 to 30 April 2020) were coded for a) references to COVID-19 and b) the type of messaging (e.g. saving money, encouraging larger purchases).

The ANZJPH report provided examples of Tweets from bottle shop retailers during the study period which referred to COVID-19 to market alcohol:

  • This choice of wine is absolutely delicious with a great finish #lockdownwine.’
  • ‘…at home on the #quarantinas. Stay safe, stay home and get it delivered #lockdown
  • ‘You can support small business during COVID-19…here’s a list of wine sale deals…’
  • ‘Are you set with your alcohol and toilet paper? Get your alcohol here…#stockpile #delivery #corona.’

The report said when analysing all of the Tweets between 13 March and 30 April 2020 ‘we identified Tweets that contained messages such as: easy access to alcohol at home (9.5%); saving money (3.6%); encouraging larger purchases (3.6%); encouraging alcohol consumption (15.4%) and using alcohol to cope, ‘survive’ or feel better (3.3%).’

‘We found that only a small number of packaged liquor retailers had an active Twitter account, and, of those that did, there was no evidence of an increase in Tweet frequency since the emergence of COVID-19,’ the report said. ‘We did, however, observe some COVID-specific alcohol advertising through Twitter.

‘When analysing the content of Tweets written during the first lockdown, we found that the most popular messages used were ‘encouraging alcohol use’ and ‘easy access to alcohol at home’. While similar themes were also the most popular messages used on Facebook and Instagram, these themes occurred less often on Twitter.’

The report’s authors were explicit in saying ‘while we are not alleging the Tweets reviewed for this study are in breach of any legislation, regulation or industry code, we suggest that greater scrutiny of online or social media posts be considered to ensure compliance, particularly during further instances of lockdown.’

The ANZJPH report: Are bottle shops using Twitter to increase advertising or encourage drinking during COVID-19 was co-authored by Daniel Winter, Brennan Geiger, Kirsten Morley, James Conigrave, Paul Haber and Benjamin Riordan.


Photo credit: Utsman Media on Unsplash

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