Kiwi adolescents are frequently exposed to marketing of unhealthy food choices online, according to a University of Auckland study.

The study reviewed two months of Facebook posts from 45 food and beverage brands and found about two-thirds of posts had at least one ‘occasional’ (read: unhealthy) food item. Researchers estimated that some of these posts could potentially reach 10% of New Zealand adolescents.

The aim of the study, published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal, was to determine the extent, nature and potential impact of internet-based marketing on Facebook and YouTube. The study tracked Facebook activity over two months, and YouTube presence over two years, of snack food, beverage and fast food companies.

Facebook and YouTube are two popular social media sites that companies use to target young people. In 2012, 93% of New Zealanders aged 15–24 years used the Internet, with this number likely to have increased since.

The researchers – Stefanie Vandevijvere, Charlotte Aitken and Professor Boyd Swinburn from the School of Population Health – concluded that with the growth of social media marketing, new methods need to be developed to monitor children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing and compliance with advertising standards.

They pointed out that in a recent report, The World Health Organization encourages governments to acknowledge their duty to protect children online.

“The WHO proposes the development of a rights-based framework for the regulation of digital food marketing to children based on the rights to participation and protection accorded to children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises the duty of states to protect the rights of children online, including their right to health.”

An accompanying editorial in the NZMJ cautions that, in light of Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorised use of Facebook users’ data, it’s crucial to keep an eye on social media marketing of unhealthy foods or alcohol and tobacco.

Antonia C Lyons, Professor of Health Psychology, at Victoria University of Wellington; Timothy McCreanor, Professor of Public Health at Massey University and Professor Antonia Lyons, from the School of Health at Victoria University of Wellington, maintain that the massive audience reach of online networks means social media marketing is “highly effective and very cheap”.

“The business models of social media platforms are structured around exploiting the warehoused personal data of the masses from which algorithms can identify highly specific group and individual profiles, allowing micro-targeted advertising, often via sophisticated psychological profiling tools.

“This type of highly targeted marketing encourages peer-to-peer transmission of messages and content, enabling electronic ‘word-of-mouth’ viral marketing.

Such sharing of ‘information’ blurs the boundaries between commercial content and private activity, they say, “making it difficult for users to identify marketing content that often morphs as it travels through the network”.

They conclude that, “Promoting unhealthy products on social media is an effective marketing strategy, but is ethically problematic, particularly when it is targeted at children and young people who are high users of social media platforms.”

Results from the recent New Zealand Health Survey revealed that one in three children in this country are either overweight or obese. Marketing is one of the factors known to influence unhealthy food and beverage choices.

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