Digital junk: food and beverage marketing on Facebook

Facebook users willingly spread marketing messages on behalf of food and beverage corporations. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

We all know obesity is a common, serious, and costly health issue. But while government action has stalled and the debate rages on about how best to combat this growing public health disaster, junk food manufacturers continue to aggressively market and sell vast amounts of energy-dense, nutrition-poor food and drinks.

The industry is increasingly targeting young people aged 15 to 24 years. These young people spend an average of A$180 per week on food and non-alcoholic drinks and most (85%) use the internet for social networking or gaming. So it’s not surprising marketers are placing a firm grip on Facebook.

One of the powerful environmental factors influencing the rise in obesity is the ubiquitous presence of food and beverage marketing. Alarmingly, young adult Australians are getting fatter, faster than other age groups. One-third (35.5%) of Australians aged 15 to 24 years are considered overweight or obese.

Preventing weight gain in this age group is important, as beginning early adulthood with a healthy body weight means means you’re much more likely to maintain a healthy weight later in life.

How are companies using Facebook?

Research into the nature and extent of junk food marketing has primarily focused on television advertising aimed at children. But in the age of social media, this focus is unlikely to capture the types of food and drink marketing adolescents and young adults are most likely to view.

To understand how junk food and drink brands are using social media to reach young Australians, we investigated the top-ranked food and drink brands on Facebook. This is the first study to systematically assess the nature of food and drink promotions on the globally popular social media site Facebook. Our result are published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

Young Australians are gaining weight faster than any other group. Corey Holms/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

We reviewed 27 food and drink brand Facebook pages on the basis of their marketing techniques, follower engagement and potential reach. The pages included fast food restaurants, chocolate, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and energy drinks, confectionery, ice cream, spreads, biscuits and salty snacks.

Junk food and drink marketing is prolific and seamlessly integrated within online social networks. We found that pages widely used social media marketing features that increase consumer interaction and engagement, such as competitions based on user-generated content, interactive games and apps.

Adolescents (aged 13 to 17) and young adult users (aged 18 to 24) were equally receptive to the pages.

The Facebook pages we studied were professionally moderated and appeared to be administered by either the company brand owner or an advertising agency. These pages were not low-budget or simply amateur fan pages, but clearly part of an overall marketing strategy.

The most popular Facebook food and drink brand page in Australia was for Bubble O’Bill Ice Cream. Administrators responded to virtually every post made to its timeline and engaged with post comments daily, which may help explain its popularity.

Four of the brand pages included a Facebook app that allowed customers to place an order without having to click outside of Facebook. These order apps were promoted by offering prices and menu upgrades exclusive to Facebook users. Including an easy purchase option so effortlessly embedded in a customer’s Facebook friend network encourages impulse purchasing.

Soft drinks and energy drink brand pages were hugely popular on Facebook, reflecting the high consumption of these products among adolescents and young adults. Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages contributes to rising obesity levels and has been the focus of controversial tax policy reform proposals.

Young people engaged with these brands near-daily. On average, pages posted new content every two days, with some pages posting multiple times a day. When this activity is combined with the daily login habits of Facebook users, the reach of marketing messages quickly amplifies. Users willingly spread marketing messages on behalf of food and beverage corporations with seemingly little incentive or reward required.

Policy and practice implications

Research shows people who experienced strong positive emotions while viewing Facebook page content for food and beverage brands are 3.25 times more likely to recommend the brands and 2.5 times more likely to prefer the brands.

If Facebook makes you’re feel good, you’re more likely to believe a product’s marketing spiel. Nathan Cooke/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Conversely, some of the most effective public health behaviour change campaigns have generated negative emotions and may not be as effective in social media environments in which people can actively avoid these uncomfortable messages. If people are engaging with Facebook content because it makes them feel good, it may mean that health promotion messages that are effective in other forms of media will not work on social media.

Young adults are a highly desirable target population for junk food marketing. But little research, resources, and policy action have been directed at this age group. We do know, however, that factors such as identity development and shifting interpersonal influences differentiate young adulthood from other life stages and influence the adoption of both healthy and unhealthy behaviours.

Current voluntary agreements on junk food marketing only limit advertising during television programs aimed at very young children. This narrow approach means junk food companies can claim that they legitimately market to older children and young adults. Restrictions on junk food marketing should to be extended to include internet-based advertising and should aim to protect older children and youth.