One could blame Thailand's underage drinking on a lot of factors.
For starters, the ease of access and few consequences make alcohol both tempting and attainable. Tack on social acceptance, a growing wealth gap, and Thailand's education crisis, and you have more than enough leads to swing at.
Still, a recent Bangkok Post article implies something that may have been overlooked: social media. "The social network has become a powerful tool for the alcohol industry to advertise products among targeted drinkers, especially the young," said Parichart Sthapitanonda, an academic at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of communication arts.
Are youth who use social media becoming victims of predatory advertising by alcohol companies?
Well, there's no doubt big alcohol companies are better at social media than your average business in Thailand. Many of them have the advantage of participating in global campaigns or following the lead of their colleagues' in other parts of the world that have heavily invested in social media.
"Some youth-oriented marketing strategies, such as using cartoon characters and stuffed toys to represent their alcohol brands, could violate self-regulatory codes," Sthapitanonda noted.
I don't intend to defend alcohol companies that clearly target the underaged with their marketing. They should be reprimanded and fined according to or more strongly than current industry standards. However, I examined several social media campaigns being promoted in Thailand and found no instances of such behavior. I did find that these companies are wisely aligning their brands with fun, excitement and most importantly, interaction.
Of the campaigns I observed was a contest for the ThaiBev product, Blend 285, which asks fans to create a virtual persona to stand in line for their chance to win a trip to a parties in the cities they choose. Participating and winning the contest was predicated on participants being of age according to Thai law. While there's room for improvement on the age prompts, and I agree slapping "drink responsibly" reminders on ads doesn't simply make companies blameless, I failed to find any predatory ads.
More disappointingly, I was unable to answer the burning question of why companies with unlimited advertising budgets would render otherwise lucid thinking teens and preteens into irresistible temptation by using "cartoons and stuffed animals".
I did find another recent Bangkok Post article begging us to the question whether underage drinking is more deeply connected to other societal flaws and influences.
So while traditional media far outreach social media, as interest in new channels such as Facebook and Twitter rapidly grow, we should prepare to be subjected to more arguments blaming the medium for society's ills.