Six brands target children with ‘hidden’ junk food advertising on digital media: prof

Six companies accused of pushing the limits on social media and the web while regulators focus on TV and print.

Digital media marketing firms are using personalised promotion, interactive and direct engagement and integrated cross-platform techniques to sell products to young people that are high in fat, sugar and salt, according to University of Sydney Business School research — pushing the limits on social media and the web while regulators focus on more traditional media.

In her study of six food brands, associate professor of marketing Teresa Davis identifies a number of methods used by digital marketers to build brand relationships with young consumers in ways not seen in traditional media.

Dr Davis tells NBR the six brands are:

  • Coca-Cola South Pacific;
  • McDonald’s;
  • Cadbury Australia (part of Kraft Foods Australia);
  • Chupa Chups;
  • Doritos Australia (part of The Smith’s Snackfood Company; and
  • Pringles (part of Kellogg)

"The easiest examples to explain are ‘tag a friend with their favorite flavour of Cadbury’s chocolate/Doritos/pringles’ type of Facebook campaign," Dr Davis says.

"This allows a company access to the friends of their consumers’ Facebook pages and friends of friends — a multiplicative effect."

In one of her examples, a young person needs to take a picture of their ‘summer moment’ after having bought pringles from a Coles supermarket, put the picture up on pringles Facebook page — plus their own, which then goes onto anyone following the young person. It is also required that they share all their personal details with the company. "Issues of privacy, confidentiality, and ethics are raised here," Dr Davis says.

"Similarly theOreoss and Cadburys ‘who is your best beach buddy’ campaigns want young people to share a picture of themselves on the beach with the company Facebook page to win a competition."

She adds that a "share your location for an emergency Coke" campaign "does not sound very safe."

Facebook could not be immediately reached for comment, but the social network does have an age-restriction in Australia and New Zealand; you have to be 13 or over to sign up, although the requirement is only lightly policed.

Dr Davis says her findings could have implications for future policies and regulatory measures needed to help combat growing obesity rates.

While regulation exists to limit the advertising of ‘junk’ food to children through television and other broadcast media, little is understood about how children are affected by online advertising, much of which is considered to be delivered “under-the-radar” via product placement, she says. (Here, the Advertising Standards Authority recently released a new Children and Young People's Advertising Code, but it does not specifically mention digital platforms as it applies to all media. If you think that, say, a location-based ad campaign puts minors at risk, NetSafe — which administers the Harmful Digital Communications Act and has a direct line into the major social networks — is probably a better first port of call.)

“Since working on my PhD, ‘How young children recognise the symbolism of brands’, it has been clear to me that young children do not understand advertising in quite the same way that adults do,” Dr Davis says.

“Cognitively, there are developmental differences. This simply means their minds are more vulnerable to persuasion.”

“Regulations governing traditional advertising does more to help protect the vulnerable,” she said. “Hidden advertising in newer forms of digital media makes it harder than ever for children, and their parents, to understand how much of it they are exposed to.”

Dr Davis’ study analysed the content of branded mobile phone applications, branded websites and branded Facebook sites to understand the nature of consumer–brand relationship strategies employed by digital marketers.

“Food marketers have an unfair advantage in the digital space. Understanding how it works and how it can be regulated or managed is extremely important if we want to ensure a healthy future for generations,” said Dr Davis.

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