Imagine if, in order to access this thoroughly benign blog post, you first had to fill out a form verifying that you were of legal blog-reading age. It’d be an annoyance, sure, but a minor one. But what if you were forced to go through the same motions for every other site you visited throughout the day, every day? At what point while populating fields with your birth date (and thus reminding yourself of your ever-increasing age and grim mortality) would annoyance turn to anger?
Anger, as we know, leads to hate, and hate to suffering, so age gates are obviously the path to the dark side. I know this; as a person who writes about beer, I sometimes visit dozens of brewery websites in a day, and almost all of them require verification of age in one form or another. But why are age gates so ubiquitous? From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that they solve a nonexistent problem (it’s against the law for people under 21 in the U.S. to buy or drink beer, not to read about beer) and are about as effective at thwarting the underage as were the porn sites I visited when I was 16. They’re also country-specific—sapporobeer.com, for instance, requires age verification, but sapporobeer.jp does not.
From an insider’s perspective, however, that’s all beside the point.
“The beer industry has been self-regulatory in terms of marketing and advertising since the end of Prohibition,” says Mary Jane Saunders, vice president and general counsel for the Beer Institute, the trade association representing the beer industry in the U.S. “The outlets have evolved and the standards have evolved, but one of the things that’s been consistent is that breweries would only advertise to those who are of drinking age.”
But how to limit underage access to beer advertising? “For the most part, when you’re dealing with television, radio or magazines, you use an audience demographic of 71.6 percent, where you have to have a means of verifying that your audience is 71.6 percent legal drinking age,” Saunders says. (That percentage comes straight from the BI’s Advertising and Marketing Code, and while it may seem arbitrary, it’s actually based on data from the 2010 census that indicated 71.6 percent of the population was 21 or above. Organizations representing beer, wine and spirits adopted it as the standard in mid-2011.) So a brewery could advertise in a magazine like “DRAFT,” whose readership is almost exclusively 21-and-over, but not in, say, “Highlights.”
The internet, however, is an entirely different animal. How to target advertising—and a brewery website is considered by the BI and others to be a form of advertising—to those who are 21 or older without some method of confirming the audience’s age?
“When people started advertising through digital media, statistics on the audience weren’t necessarily available or reliable,” Saunders says. “One of the ways brewers dealt with that is by agreeing on a voluntary basis that they would age-gate their websites.”
The policy was soon adopted by the BI and the Brewers Association as well as by groups representing wine and spirits, and though bemoaned by people like yours truly, it’s been surprisingly effective. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s March 2014 report on self-regulation in the alcohol industry, the age gate at the website of a popular alcohol brand turned away about 38 percent of visitors, and additional research revealed that 33 percent of visitors trying to access another brand’s mobile page also turned away at the gate.
Obviously, many of these visitors may have been of-age customers who bailed on accessing the site out of frustration—both the FTC and BI recommend the noxious form of age gate that requires entry of your date of birth, rather than those that simply require a click—and even the FTC admitted in its report that its trust in the honesty of site visitors was not total: “Of course, these age gate solutions will not work if consumers lie about their age, and in surveys, as many as half of teens admit to lying about their age online in order to access a website or service,” the report said.
But there’s some evidence that age verification is a necessary evil: The BI maintains a complaint form on its website, and Saunders says the organization has received complaints from citizens about both members and nonmembers. In our litigious nation, it may be ultimately safer for a brewery to implement a web interface that inconveniences of-age customers if it means avoiding potential lawsuits or pushback from the BI, BA or FTC. Plus, effective self-regulation prevents government regulation, so age gates will live on.
It’s not all bad news, though. There’s a fun side to age verification, and that’s what can occur when you click “no.” Many brewers redirect underage users to some weird places. Here are our favorites. Let us know yours in the comments.