Are Big Alcohol's Ad Men Targeting Recovering Alcoholics?

By Jeff Deeney 02/26/15

After years of posting about getting sober, I began wondering if the beer ads I was seeing online were part of a deliberate campaign to get me to pick up the bottle again.


About a month and a half ago, I had a dark epiphany. It was one of those quiet Saturday nights you come to appreciate once you’re a little older and a long-time sober. I was downstairs streaming Netflix, my pregnant wife, due with our first child in May, was resting upstairs. I was watching an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s CNN documentary show, Inside Man. Each episode inserts Spurlock into some troubling or controversial space where our policies either can or have gone wrong in a way that have consequences for certain people. The episode I was watching was called, “Privacy” and in it Spurlock examines big data and its implications for surveillance and increasingly invasive targeted advertising.

As part of Spurlock’s quest to determine how much of his personal data has been bought, bartered and exchanged between entities hoping to more effectively access his wallet with targeted advertising, he travels after making a string of fruitless phone calls to the offices of a data brokerage house, only to discover that it’s essentially impossible to find out who is buying and selling your personal data. The implications of such shadowy and unregulated commerce, he claims, are potentially ugly as he notes that data brokerages have gone so far as to compile and broker sensitive lists of rape survivors, people with HIV, and alcoholics.

That was when I jumped up from my chair.

For the past two years, since I’ve spoken more frequently about being in recovery on social media, and as mobile Internet services and social media applications have sought to more aggressively insert advertising into my life, my feeds have become consumed with alcohol advertising. At first, I registered this fact subconsciously, really not thinking much of it as I scrolled through my Twitter feed past booze ads. After a while, it was occurring so frequently on both Twitter and YouTube that I naively assumed that it was an error of some keyword scraping ad targeting bot that was capturing my tweets about alcoholism and recovery and decided in error that I was someone who drinks. 

But it wasn’t until I saw Inside Man that I began wondering if this was a deliberate campaign to get alcohol advertising in front of a recovering person with the hopes that I would relapse and become a habitual alcohol consumer again. A recent example is YouTube serving me alcohol advertising at 8am on a Saturday morning as I’m queuing up music for a morning run. Why else would they serve me a booze ad at that time of day, unless they thought I was the kind of guy who might go for a beer as the sun’s coming up (which, 11 years ago, I was)?

Spurlock’s claim that data brokers target alcoholics comes from the reporting of his CNN colleague Melanie Hicken, who has covered the issue of sensitive data exchange extensively. Her report stated that data brokers are trading on the fact that you went to rehab and putting you on a list of alcoholics of interest to alcohol marketers based on congressional testimony by Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum who informed lawmakers that “Alcohol and drug treatment information about patients is the subject of extra protections under existing law, but no law stops data brokers from profiting by selling the information.” She concluded that, “Individuals should have the right to stop harmful collection and categorization activity.”

A constant barrage of alcohol advertising is not going to make me drink. Recovery has given me too amazing a life for that; I own a house, I’m happily married, I have a daughter due to arrive in the spring that I’m 100% certain I can love and care for. These things did not come easily; I’ve only reached this point after 11 years of hard work at repairing the damage drugs and alcohol did to my life. The thought of joining the hideous beer fueled bro-down that Budweiser for some reason thinks I’ll find appealing at this life stage is utterly repellant, and made more so by the fact that it feels like a cynical campaign to potentially destroy my life in the quest to make me a reliable return customer. And I believe that the alcohol industry wants someone like me back—roughly half of all alcohol consumed gets purchased by risky drinkers.

As Fix readers are well aware, old ideas that alcoholics and drug addicts should remain anonymous for fear of having their lives impacted by the associated stigma are fading. As more people have spoken openly about their struggles with addiction, we’ve found ourselves better situated as a community to combat policies that criminalize drug users, to advocate for greater access to better quality treatment and foster greater understanding in the general public about a previously demonized population. However, if the cost of sharing our stories openly online is being targeted for a campaign of relentless advertising on behalf of the alcohol industry, some who are ambivalent about the prospect may stay silent. 

Of course, the alcohol industry dumps so much money into advertising because it is effective at selling products. At 11 years sober and leading a happy life, I may be immune to these ad messages, but what about the highly sensitive newly recovering person who’s afraid that by quitting drinking they’ll be missing out on the party? What about someone struggling to stay sober who is feeling alone and bored? Can someone be enticed to relapse through constant messaging that alcohol is where the camaraderie is— the central message of all the Budweiser ads I’ve received? And if so, what is the cost, in terms of health and public safety, when an ad successfully convinces a sober alcoholic to pick a drink up?

Conversely, it is conceivable that exerting mental effort wondering about a dystopic future where alcoholics can’t escape booze ads is for nothing. In fact, maybe the ads I’ve been seeing aren’t even targeted to me; it’s a fluke of demographics that I’m seeing them at all. That’s basically what Google says, and to their credit they were willing to look at the ads I’ve been served and have an extended back and forth with The Fix about what happened. Their position boils down to the fact that they have a policy against targeting alcohol advertising to individual users based on interests, so that can’t be what’s happening. It could be the kind of video I was watching—music videos are popular ad buys for beer companies. Any viewer who watches that kind of video might see a beer ad, and since they don’t allow Budweiser to target me based on interest, they’re also not allowed to intentionally exclude me from possibly seeing a beer ad because I’m in recovery. It’s no surprise I didn’t see a beer ad when I tried watching the same video signed out of my Google account—if you’re not signed in Google can’t verify your age, so anybody who’s not signed in would never see a beer ad. Though, I didn’t see a beer ad when I watched the same videos signed into Google as my wife. Well, again, Google has a policy against targeting alcohol ads to users based on interest, so whatever the explanation may be, it isn’t that. 

I came away from the conversation with Google less certain about what’s going on with the ads I’ve been seeing on their platform—I’m a 41-year-old dude who mostly watches old heavy metal videos on YouTube, of course they’re going to constantly advertise beer to me, it has nothing to do with posting about recovery online! But the suspicion that I’ve been singled out lingers, nonetheless.

Twitter takes a more laissez faire approach to alcohol advertising, mostly only restricting its deployment in the U.S. to those verified over the age of 21 and, unlike Google, allowing users to be targeted for advertising by interest. In fact, it keeps an entire list of what it considers to be successful alcohol industry ad campaigns that have targeted users by search keywords, promoted trends, and interest in “food and beverage.” Maker’s Mark, one brand that was constantly on my timeline a while back, won a Shorty Award for its efforts. One can imagine how a Twitter user who tweets “Alcohol destroyed my life,” or “Things are so much better since I quit partying,” might get swept up in a targeted ad dragnet using the words “alcohol” and “partying” to indicate interest in drinking and wind up seeing booze ads as a result. It’s not only scraped keywords that could conceivably go awry or be maladapted; in its Twitter campaign Ciroc Vodka “used geo-targeting to deliver relevant messages to revelers attending branded events in popular markets.” Imagine an alcohol ad campaign using geo-targeting to match phone metadata to the times and locations of AA meetings, that initiates a targeted ad campaign when someone stops attending as frequently as they used to.

Pam Dixon from World Privacy Forum assured me that data brokers trading in lists of alcoholics are distinct from Internet companies, so my repeatedly seeing beer ads on YouTube or whiskey enticements on Twitter isn’t the result of some shady back alley transaction with information merchants. That would be great news, except that what data brokers do is far sleazier and potentially more damaging to recovering alcoholics than putting ads on their cellphones.

“The data broker lists can lead to deep life impacts, including potentially what you pay for health insurance to what kind of credit you may be initially offered. We document this overall issue in our report, The Scoring of America.”

The solution to not being targeted by booze ads in recovery, obviously, is to opt of any targeted advertising. Google suggested I could do this—though, they also pointed out that it shouldn’t matter whether I’m opted in or out, since they’re not targeting me for alcohol ads. But irrespective of whether they currently have a policy against targeting alcohol ads and an opt-out clause, will those policies always be there? Is it possible that at some point in the future once I’ve fitted my house up with Google’s smart appliances, Nest, smart television, fire alarm, home security system and self-driving car and so on, that Google changes their policy to require ad targeting to use their products, and loosen restrictions around alcohol advertising? If so, would I have to totally uproot myself from technology (if, at that point, it’s even possible to do so—note how increasingly difficult it is to buy a television without smart features included) in order to avoid existing in a hellscape of constant inescapable alcohol advertising straight out of a Black Mirror episode?

Perhaps I’m paranoid; it’s just some ads, big deal! And maybe raising these questions is just indulging in a grim fantasy. Or, maybe there is cause for concern about real danger on the horizon for people in recovery on the Internet, and we should keep a closer eye on what’s flashing on our screens.

Anheuser Busch did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.