New research published by the Irish Heart Foundation found that children are being targeted online with “subtle, sophisticated and surreptitious methods” in an environment where parents “don’t know what’s going on”.
Junk food companies are using hi-tech analytics to target children directly, explained child psychologist and lead researcher Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden. “In the digital world, they can identify those who are most reactive to food and drink marketing and thus target the most vulnerable children.”
Ireland restricts HFSS (high fat, salt and sugar) broadcast advertising to under-18s on TV and radio, but has not yet tackled the regulation of digital marketing. There is “no option but to regulate” Tatlow-Golden said, with children in Ireland now increasingly active on digital media.
The study, Who’s Feeding the kids online, also includes the first known research in Europe into the marketing techniques of top brands most popular with young teens on Facebook.
Researchers studied 73 top retail food brands in Ireland and found that many of the big food and beverage brands are not now using websites to promote their products to children – with just one in 10 having sites with child-directed content. However, one in five still had content appealing to older children and teens, virtually all of them for HFSS items.
But the picture “changed dramatically” on Facebook: all the food and beverage brand pages with the greatest reach among 13-14 year old users in Ireland are for brands that feature or include HFSS items (according to the World Health Organisation recommendations).
Major international brands such as Coca-Cola, as well as local Irish ones like Tayto, were posting updates on their Timelines and actively seeking young people’s engagement by prompting them to ‘like’ their posts, the study noted.
“These brands actively seek to recruit Facebook users to spread their marketing – seeking likes, tags, comments and photos and providing many links and hashtags,” the authors explained.
The trend is concerning given the reach and power of Facebook – researchers highlight a Kantar study showing how, in a Coca-Cola campaign in France, Facebook accounted for 2% of marketing cost but 27% of incremental sales.
“Even though social media participation is intended to be limited to those aged 13 years and up, when children typically recognise and understand the purpose of advertising, the presence of HFSS marketing in social media is a concern,” they noted.
The IHF found brands using tactics with strong appeal to children and young people – bold graphics and strong visuals, competitions, a strong emphasis on humour and links to entertainment.
Sports stars and celebrities popular with children were also “regularly featured”, which was a major concern for parents. A survey of 33 parents with 13 to 14 year old children, selected to achieve a range of demographics, found that they were “very hostile” to these role models being used to promote unhealthy products online. This included an advertisement by Irish rugby star Sean O’Brien for Supermac’s burgers and the singer Rita Ora’s YouTube promotion of Coca-Cola.
Food and Drink Industry Ireland (FDII) director Paul Kelly said members abide by the ASAI Code of Standards for Advertising and Marketing Communications in Ireland, which covers commercial marketing communications and sales promotions in all media in Ireland, including digital.
FDII is also participating in the development of a code of practice for food marketing, promotion and sponsorship led by the Irish Department of Health. One of the main objectives is to develop a Code of Practice for food advertising and marketing that applies to non-broadcast media, outdoor media, print media and cinemas, he added.
Facebook did not respond to emailed requests for comment.