Why supermarkets need to be more responsible when marketing alcohol online

Scrolling through her father’s Ocado account, as she completed a food order on his behalf, Emma* was shocked at what she saw.

The Alcohol Health Alliance wants online retailers to commit to changing their algorithms and marketing tactics to ensure that shoppers are never reminded or persuaded to buy alcohol, particularly when it is not in their basket.

She knew he was a dependent drinker but what she wasn’t prepared for was the level of ‘harassment’ she says she received from the online retailer to put alcohol into his basket.

“My father was about to return to his home in Leeds after a few weeks in hospital so I offered to do a food shop for him using his account,” she says.

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“I just wanted to order a little bit of food so he had enough to eat for the next few days but at four or five different stages during the process, Ocado tried to push alcohol into the basket.

“My father is a dependent drinker and orders alcohol every week so the algorithm had obviously picked up on this. It was constantly showing him even more alcohol to buy through offers and marketing tactics like ‘have you forgotten’.

She adds: “I don’t drink so I could just ignore it, but for someone, like my father, who doesn’t have the inclination or the willpower to say no, it’s too much to resist and, in my opinion, it’s just wrong.”

Sarah*, 33 agrees. Just before the first lockdown last March, she suffered a miscarriage. When she came out of hospital, she returned to her flat in Leeds on her own. She was in between jobs, her family lived two hours away and when lockdown hit, she couldn’t see any of her friends. She says she felt completely isolated in her rented flat and started drinking heavily to cope with the situation.

It wasn’t long before she was drinking two bottles of wine a day. Sarah says she would buy alcohol with her weekly online supermarket order and then top it up with daily trips to the local shop.

“When I was doing my online shop I would add the alcohol that I would hope to drink during the week, and probably a bit more because of the adverts and the deals that are highlighted on there. If I was planning to drink three bottles of wine during the week but I saw it was two bottles for a tenner then I’d buy four.”

She adds: “Even if I was feeling strong and thinking ‘I won’t buy any wine this week, it would always be there. It would pop up to remind me that I had forgotten it or suggest deals and it would be really problematic.”

Sarah contacted Forward Leeds and, with their help, stopped drinking last May.

After she became sober, she says she avoided online shopping altogether. “I was scared to do online shopping because I knew it was going to be there right in my face,” she says.

The number of people in the UK drinking at high-risk levels has almost doubled since the start of the pandemic and with many more people now shopping online, the Alcohol Health Alliance is calling for change.

Chairman Professor Sir Ian Gilmore wants online retailers to commit to changing their algorithms and marketing tactics to ensure that shoppers are never reminded or persuaded to buy alcohol, particularly when it is not in their basket.

He argues that online gambling firms have a strict duty of care for potential problem gamblers so why shouldn’t supermarkets have the same obligation when it comes to alcohol? “It is extremely concerning to hear that online marketing tactics have led to dependent drinkers being advertised the very products that are damaging their health and well-being,” he says. “The number of people in the UK drinking at high-risk levels has almost doubled since the start of the pandemic and as so many of us are now shopping online, more must be done to curb this mounting health crisis. Online retailers must commit to changing their algorithms and marketing tactics to ensure that shoppers are never reminded or persuaded to buy alcohol when it is not in their basket. This simple change could save lives.”

He adds: “Never has marketing been so focused or targeted as it is now. This form of targeting is particularly pernicious for people that have an alcohol problem and are trying their best to do something about it. To be bombarded by assaults when you’re trying to buy your bread and milk online is very dangerous”.

Prof Gilmore believes there needs to be a new law to ban the online marketing of alcohol in this way.

“Self regulation has palpably failed in protecting people from alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy food. It requires regulation.”

Supermarkets argue they are not breaking any rules when it comes to marketing. They say customers have the option to remove their repeat purchases from appearing during the shopping process.

However, Prof Gilmore believes they should take more responsibility when it comes to their customers.

“It would be a courageous and commendable move for retailers to take action to show that they put their customers’ health ahead of company profits by going above and beyond what is expected of them within the rulebook,” he says.

“Even by removing repeat purchases from an account, a high-risk drinker is still not protected from all alcohol promotions on the website. Retailers have a duty of care to their customers and should take the steps necessary to protect and promote good health.”

When contacted by The Yorkshire Post, Ocado refused to comment on any of the points raised, Asda declined to comment because our case studies weren’t its customers and Tesco and Morrisons ignored repeated attempts for a response.

Sainsbury’s said: “We do not target individual customers for specific campaigns. The ‘forgotten your favourites’ and ‘before you go’ messages are based on previous purchase history and customers have the option to ‘click on’ if they do not want to make repeat purchases.”

A spokesperson from the British Retail Consortium, said: “Our members adhere to the rules on direct marketing, and do not target individual customers for specific campaigns. “Customers are sometimes targeted with products based on their product purchasing history, but there is an option to opt out of these communications.”

A spokesman from the Advertising Standards Authority added: “Alcohol ads have to follow strict content rules which apply across media, including online, and prohibit them from implying, condoning or encouraging immoderate, irresponsible or anti-social drinking. “Alcohol ads must also be targeted away from under-18s. While serving alcohol ads to alcoholics is clearly unfortunate, if the content of the ads abide by our rules it is difficult for us to intervene.

“However, if anyone has concerns we encourage them to contact us so that we can carefully assess whether there are any grounds for action.”

*The names have been changed to protect their identity.

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James Mitchinson