Researchers call for tougher policies to protect children from unhealthy food marketing on TikTok

July 27, 2022 — Unhealthy F&B brands encourage TikTok users to market their products for them – turning them into “brand ambassadors” – and to use their own accounts for promotional activities. Evidence has shown that this exposure of children ultimately influences food preferences, purchases, demands and consumption.

The findings were published in the open-access journal BMJ Global Health and underscore the need for policies to protect children from the harmful impact of this type of social media marketing, the researchers report.

Social Media Influence
TikTok users create, post, watch and interact with short videos. Since its release, the popularity of the social media platform has grown rapidly. Its global monthly active users reportedly grew from 55 million in January 2018 to 1 billion in September 2021.

And it’s popular with kids: more than a third of its daily users in the US are said to be 14 years old or younger.

Yet no study to date has examined the impact of unhealthy food marketing on TikTok, despite calls to pay attention to the platform’s health implications, the researchers point out.

To fill this knowledge gap, researchers assessed the content of all videos posted on the accounts of 16 major food and non-alcoholic beverage brands – based on global brand share as of June 30, 2021.

The content and sentiment of a sample of relevant user-generated content created in response to branded hashtag challenges launched by these brands was also assessed.

Children are exposed to a large amount of unhealthy foods (high in salt, sugar and fat) marketed online.Some 539 videos had been posted on 16 included accounts, of which 3% (17) posted in 2019]37% (198) in 2020 and 60% (324) in the first six months of 2021. Four accounts had not posted any videos.

The number of subscribers to the included accounts ranged from 14 to 1.6 million. The videos received an average of 63,400 views, 5,829 likes, 157 comments and 36 shares per video.

The most common marketing strategies were branding (87% of videos), product images (85%), engagement (31%) and celebrities/influencers (25%).

Engagement included incentivizing branded hashtag challenges that encouraged the creation of user-generated content featuring the brands’ products, videos, and/or branded effects, such as stickers, filters or special effects featuring the brand.

The collective total views of user-generated content from unique challenges ranged from 12.7 million to 107.9 billion. Among a sample of 626 brand-relevant videos generated in response to these challenges, 96% featured the brand, 68% featured product images, and 41% featured brand effects.

Most expressed a positive (73%) or neutral/unclear (25%) sentiment, and few expressed a negative sentiment (3%).

Promotional activity analyzed
The study is observational, so it cannot establish causality, say the researchers. They recognize that sampled user-generated content may not represent a branded hashtag challenge. They were also unable to measure children’s exposure to brand promotional activities or user-generated content.

But they say, “Brand activity has grown rapidly – ​​with most videos being posted in the six months prior to data collection – and includes instigating branded hashtag challenges that encourage content generated by the user featuring branded products, branded videos, or branded effects.

“Analysis of a sample of user-generated and brand-relevant content created in response to them showed that branded hashtag challenges do indeed turn users into, in TikTok’s words, ‘ambassadors’. unofficial brand “.”

While fewer videos were posted by users who appear to have been paid (influencers, for example), these attracted nearly ten times more likes per video, on average, than those who appear to be unpaid and are therefore likely important in spreading brand hashtag challenges, the researchers say.

“The substantial reach of influencer marketing is concerning given that exposure to influencer marketing of unhealthy foods has been shown to increase energy intake (from unhealthy foods and in general),” write -they.

And the researchers also point out that proposed UK legislation will ban all “paid” online marketing of “less healthy foods and drinks” from January 2023. The researchers acknowledge that the sampled user-generated content may not have represented a branding hashtag challenge.

But it includes an exemption for brand-only advertising and excludes marketing from outside the UK, even though social media platforms frequently operate across international borders.

“Our study showed that TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing, including that created by users at the instigation of brands. Given the popularity of TikTok with children, our findings support the need for policies that protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing, including that on social media platforms,” the researchers explain.

“TikTok’s growing popularity also calls for further research into its potential impact on public health and its role as a corporate political player,” they conclude.

The impact on children
According recent analysisUK childhood obesity figures were expected to halve by 2030. Yet forecasts have revealed that if current trends continue, childhood obesity will rise by 15% among four to five year olds and 20% among ten to eleven year olds. old.

The World Health Organization recently reported the harmful impact of food marketing on children. With childhood overweight and obesity increasingly becoming global public health concerns, the organization addresses the pressing issue by outlining food market threats and government responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Unilever previously raised age to restrict F&B marketing to children aged 13 to 16 in recognition of the influence that social media and digital advertising can have on young people.

Edited by Elizabeth Green

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