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Junk food advertising in a digital world

06 Apr 2017

Junk foodIn her study of six high fat, sugar and salt food brands, Associate Professor of Marketing, Teresa Davis, identifies how food marketers use specific interactive and direct engagement techniques to build brand relationships with young consumers in the digital space in ways not seen in traditional media. The findings could have implications for future policies and regulatory measures needed to help combat growing obesity rates.

In Australia today, one in four children are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organisation. This percentage increases to two in three by the time they reach adulthood – a 10% increase from1995.

Numerous studies by the Australian National Preventive Health Agency and others reveal that one of the most significant contributing factors to the obesity epidemic is the result of ‘hidden’ sugars in processed foods. While regulation exists around advertising ‘junk’ food to children through television and other broadcast media, little is understood about how children are consuming online advertising, much of which is considered to be delivered under-the-radar via product placement.

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

“In traditional advertising, regulation does more to help protect the vulnerable; in the newer forms of online advertising, often the ‘hidden’ advertising intent is making it harder than ever for children, and their parents, to understand how much of it they are exposed to.”

Teresa’s 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. Through individualised promotions, interactive and direct engagement and sophisticated integrated cross-platform tactics, food companies are targeting young consumers directly and strategically.

“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 of young Australians,” said Teresa.

“My hope is that this research will inform our policy making. In the Australian context we have a food marketing industry that is currently ‘self-regulating’, using a code of practice which if they breach, can be called to account only through a complaints based system. This regulation has a poor record in censuring advertising that breaks the rules.”

“It’s not purely a social marketing argument, but also an economic one,” she concluded. “The long term effects of obesity in childhood leads to adult disease and adult obesity. Economic modelling as early as 2009 shows us that adult obesity can cost the economy as much as 58 billion AUD a year, in terms of medical costs, lost productivity and loss of well-being.”

View Teresa’s full report, Young consumer-brand relationship building potential using digital marketing.