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How digital marketing of legal but harmful products escalates health threats to the most vulnerable

The marketing of legal but harmful products – like alcohol and tobacco – has always targeted our emotional desires. But it has now moved to digital and social media, and this creates a heightened threat to public health because both the products and the platform target our neurological response.

Promoting psychoactive products for profit by stimulating the neurotransmitters in the brain’s reward centres, or its limbic structures, is called “limbic capitalism”.

But as limbic capitalism has gone digital over the past decade, marketers can now reach us on our smartphones as we use digital and social media platforms.

The algorithms that keep us swiping and tapping on images and videos stimulate the dopamine drive in our brains that induces feelings of pleasure.

When used to promote potentially addictive products, this presents a serious threat to public health and the wellbeing of individuals, communities and populations. We know alcohol and tobacco products are linked to a wide range of harms and injuries, but existing regulatory frameworks have nothing to say about these new forms of marketing.

Read more: Alcohol marketing has crossed borders and entered the metaverse – how do we regulate the new digital risk?

The addictive power of social media

We surveyed people aged 14 to 20 in Aotearoa New Zealand about their experience of alcohol and tobacco marketing on social media. While they valued the way social media enabled them to keep in touch with family and friends, they also frequently told us they felt these platforms were addictive.

As one 20-year-old Māori/Pākehā male told us:

Content algorithms are addictive and predatory. The only value is in being able to communicate with friends and whānau.

An 18-year-old Pākehā female said:

I dislike the addiction it fuels, dislike the competitive and comparative posting and dislike the mental health issues it feeds to young people.

Participants’ responses highlight the addictive power of social media platforms and, despite their benefits, the price users pay in continuing to use them. These insights lead us to argue limbic capitalism is becoming “limbic platform capitalism”.

New challenges to public health

This highlights the importance of understanding how much capacity we have to choose and control our compulsions on mobile social media. Users of digital platforms have valuable insights about how marketers use social media to target their vulnerabilities as they pursue their own interests and social lives online.

The public health challenges of limbic platform capitalism present a serious escalation. This is because marketing has been naturalised into these digital environments and has become difficult to identify and avoid. It has become more powerful in its capacity to target our limbic system.

Woman lying on a bed and using a smart phone at night.
Digital marketing has become difficult to avoid. Getty Images

An example comes from Perth in Australia, where the alcohol industry used the global COVID pandemic as a marketing opportunity. The number of alcohol ads increased significantly on commonly used digital platforms. Users saw alcohol ads at least every 35 seconds, offering easy access to alcohol without leaving the home and promoting the use of alcohol to “feel better”.

Our participants reported noticing increases in vape and alcohol ads on social media, including delivery offers, during lockdowns. When asked what changes they had seen in marketing since lockdowns, they also showed awareness of the synergies between platforms and products, for example:

The way they promote their products. The sounds they use. A lot of songs have become famous off [platform name]. So a lot of companies use the really famous music to help promote.

Need for regulation of social media marketing

Mobile social media are now central to young people’s professional and social identity, leisure and civic engagements. While they actively use social media for their own ends, they are simultaneously recruited as limbic platform and product consumers.

Platform algorithms are designed to generate, analyse and apply vast amounts of personalised data to target and tune flows of content to users, influencing their desires, behaviours and consumption, in order to increase profits.

Read more: NZ children see more than 40 ads for unhealthy products each day. It's time to change marketing rules

These developments and their public health implications require immediate attention. Algorithmic models intensify targeting of users at times, places and contexts when they are most susceptible. Home delivery of alcohol in the evening is an example.

This can influence purchase decisions, potentially harming vulnerable consumers and exacerbating health inequities. Such commercialised algorithm-driven systems raise serious questions for health policymakers about public oversight of the algorithms. Should we ban the promotion and marketing of unhealthy but legal products on limbic platforms?

Scholarship exploring mobile social media landscapes is essential to inform public health and health promotion research agendas, initiatives and policies. We urgently need regulatory responses for this new era of marketing, where both commodities and the popular platforms they are marketed on are dynamic, participatory, data-driven and limbic.

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