Over Age Verification On Brewery Websites

It's time for a more sensible approach to viewing alcohol content online.

In my daily travels around the Internet researching content for these posts, I have to visit many websites. Often they're brewery websites, sometimes beer blogs, or it might be a website belonging to a distributor or an importer. If the site belongs to a company whose business has anything to do with manufacturing or distributing alcoholic beverages there's a better than even chance that I'm going to have to go through the rigmarole of being carded online because there's one thing that's common to the majority of such websites: the age verification screen. You're likely to find one of those on websites that have anything to do with alcoholic drinks industry, and if you try to follow one of those people on Twitter you might also be asked for proof of your age.

Perhaps, because this practice is so ubiquitous, you might think there's some legislation that enforces this waste of a few moments of your time. As far as I can tell that's not the case (despite some breweries claiming it is, and if that's so, how come you can get into other brewery websites with no verification at all?) and that's what really bothers me. You see, because of the way these things work they're about as useful as a chocolate fireguard, and that makes me wonder why they're so prevalent.

If you walk into a bar or a beer shop and try to buy booze you might be asked to prove that you're old enough if there's any suspicion about your age, in which case you present some form of photo ID which the seller looks at and makes a decision about whether or not it's fake. Sit down McLovin, you're not going anywhere. It's as foolproof as it can be without involving things such as retina scans, voiceprint ID and a database of everyone's date of birth because it's a face-to-face interaction and physical evidence is required. Only a really good fake, sloppiness or wilful negligence can get around it.

With online verification however, all you have do to is click on a button that says 'Yes, I'm 21' (18 if you're in the UK, Czech Republic or France, 16 if you're in Germany or Belgium) or enter your date of birth either from a dropdown menu of months and years or by typing it in. I know of at least one brewery whose age verification page simply says “You must be at least 21 years old to enter this website” directly above a link that says “ENTER SITE”. No choice of Yes or No nor a requirement to enter your age or DOB. If that's meant to be some kind of a deterrent it's not what I would call a productive one.

It's hardly a time-consuming process, requiring no more effort than indicating a turn while driving your car, but how, exactly, does it stop someone who's under the legal drinking age from entering the website? It can't because no evidence of age has been presented and scrutinised. Would you care to hazard a guess at how many kids and adults lie when they go to a brewery website by clicking on the 'Yes' button or entering a false DOB?

Wait, what? Yes, adults have to lie about their age in order get into an American beer, wine or liquor-related website that uses an age verification screen because in most countries (and most US states) the age of majority – the age when you cease to be a minor eyes of the law – is 18, yet someone has made a ruling that you have to spend the first three years of your adult life patiently waiting for that moment when you can browse any website belonging to a brewery, wine-maker or distiller because you have to be of legal drinking age to get, even though you can get into a bar when you're under 21 and consume soft drinks.

One brewery claims on their verification screen that they're prohibited from advertising to minors. Despite the fact that both TV and radio (and billboards) are festooned with beer, wine and liquor ads, all of which are in plain view of minors, it's debatable whether or not a company website can be construed as advertising (if they'd said 'marketing' instead I'd be on shakier ground here), and if you're over 18 you're not a minor anyway. What's more if you're living in Germany you can be two years younger than a minor (and five years younger than 21) and still drink legally, therefore you should be free to visit that brewery's website without let or hindrance.

In the real world anything as impotent as the online age verification screen would be tossed out for being pointless and just plain silly, but since they’re on the vast majority of booze websites you have to wonder why the owners of the various websites stick with them.

The supposed good reason for their presence is to let us (and, no doubt, any nearby local alcohol control board as well as the company's lawyers) know that the brewery/winery/distillery is being responsible and doing something to deter underage drinking. I can understand that, up to a point, but does that mean the breweries who don't do it are being irresponsible?

So who thinks this a good and worthwhile idea? Well, The Brewers Association for one. From their Marketing and Advertising Code:

A Brewers’ advertising should focus solely on communicating to adult consumers of legal drinking age.

Brewers should require disclosure of a viewer’s date of birth at the entry to their websites indicating that a brewers’ products are intended only for those of legal drinking age.

Digital Media Guidelines

Brewers should require disclosure of a viewer’s date of birth indicating that Brewers’ products are intended only for those of legal drinking age:

- at the entry to their websites

- at the point of download for permanent use media with or without access to a brewer’s website

- with a third-party compliant digital media site

Okay, but since it's impossible to ensure that the reader is the age they claim what's the point? It's a waste of time, and laughably so because it's so easy to get around. The teenager who clicks 'Yes' or enters a false date of birth knows it, and knows there are no consequences. They haven't even been allowed the teenage pleasure of getting away with something because there's nothing to get away with.

I'm inclined to wonder what damage is likely to be done if someone under the legal drinking age browses a brewery's website? Teenagers, children and adults under 21 are allowed into restaurants and pubs where booze is served and where they're surrounded by people who are drinking in a controlled environment. They might go to entertainment or sporting events where either the event itself or participating teams are sponsored by a beer company. They might see beery product placement in films and on television. Every day they can see multiple ads for beer on television and on billboards and they see the stuff on sale when they go to supermarket, even if they can't buy it, so it's not as if they're shielded from alcohol and somehow emerge from a cocoon on their 21st birthday.

Some may say that although it has no teeth the age verification process is sending a message that underage drinking is wrong. I'd have to disagree. If the age verification screen did actually stop anyone under the legal drinking age from viewing the website, and again I have to wonder what harm can come of that, it would be a case of 'job done', but it doesn't, and in my opinion what we have here is another case of the Streisand effect – drawing attention to something which, if left alone, no-one would think about too much.

So, brewers, I'm not going to play any more. As far as I'm concerned the online age verification page is a feeble and pointless attempt at appeasing the Puritan temperance/neo-prohibitionist lobby. While I agree with the premise of a minimum drinking age which should be enforced in person, a more sensible approach is what's needed. Stopping anyone who is under the legal age from visiting a website when they see so much alcohol-related content in their daily lives is nonsensical, and the way it's being done is utterly ineffective. It's not as if it can even be described as broken because it never worked in the first place. From now on, if you have a button that says 'Enter site' or if you give me a choice of Yes or No buttons, I'll go along, but that's where I draw the line. If you start asking me to enter my date of birth or if you ask my age I shan't be visiting your website, unless...

Well, that's what Google's cached pages are for.