Academic journal article Perspectives in Public Health

Action Needed to Combat Food and Drink Companies' Social Media Marketing to Adolescents

Academic journal article Perspectives in Public Health

Action Needed to Combat Food and Drink Companies' Social Media Marketing to Adolescents

Article excerpt

Reports have shown how behavioural marketing through social media sites is heavily dominated by softdrink and fast food franchises, with additional concern arising due to the direct targeting of this marketing at 13 to 17-year-olds. Dr Simon Williams from Northwestern University, Chicago, USA suggests ways in which the medical community can tackle this threat to public health.

A recent report by leading emerging social media research company PQ Media found that 11 out of the 30 brands with the highest number of advert displays (or 'impressions') across the major social media sites were either softdrinks or fast-food restaurant franchises.1 Softdrink giant Coke topped the list, released at the end of the third financial quarter of 2012, with more impressions than any other international brand, including tech powerhouses Apple, Amazon and Google. Joining Coke in the top 30 were fast-food restaurants Wendy's, Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Applebee's and Dunkin' Donuts and softdrinks giants Pepsi and Sprite. Together these companies generated nearly one-third (32%) of the overall total of share-of-voice (SOV), with SOV being a measure of a brand's percentage of the total social media advertising (across all sectors).

On 19 December 2012, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) passed new amendments to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This marks the end of a long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle by public health groups who had hoped that the updated COPPA would include restrictions on advertising unhealthy food and beverage products to children.

As COPPA's amendments and their deficiencies are opened for discussion, I wish to focus on a particularly important deficiency - namely why COPPA fails to protect older children and adolescents aged 13-17 years old. From a public health perspective, this is particularly worrying in light of food and beverage companies' dominance of new types of 'behavioural marketing' across social media - which are especially popular with a young demographic.

Behavioural marketing enables companies to more precisely and effectively target specific consumers by capturing data generated by webpage visitors. Social media sites are an ideal platform for behavioural marketing because they require the user to disclose personal information to the site in order to register. For social media sites like Facebook, companies are able to use an individual's personal profile information, including their location, age, gender, education level, relationship status, sexual orientation, and their listed interests and activities. With Facebook now being the most visited website in the world, with over half a billion users, its marketing potential is unprecedented. Although it is officially unavailable to under-13s (although concerns exist that many under-13s join using a false date of birth), Facebook is particularly popular with young people aged 13 and over. As such, social media presents a unique opportunity for companies to market directly to adolescents.

It seems strange that, in the context of unhealthy foodstuffs, individuals aged 13-17 are treated as adults, whereas in the context of other unhealthy products like alcohol and tobacco, they are treated as minors. I, for one, am not convinced that under-18s are able to satisfactorily understand the commercial intent of such marketing and should thus be treated as adults. Because adolescents generally have more direct purchasing power (e.g. allowances) and greater freedom (to go and buy these products directly) than younger children, they also require protection.

As unhealthy brands continue to dominate this increasingly important advertising medium, it is important for the medical community to consider how best to meet this public health threat. I would like to offer a couple of suggestions.

First, we need to regulate social media marketing, such that companies are unable to market unhealthy brands directly to under-18s. …

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