Unhealthy food and drink brands encourage

Unhealthy food and drink brands are encouraging TikTok users to market their products for them – turning them into ‘brand ambassadors’ – as well as using their own accounts for promotional activities, content assessment finds video posted on social media platform and published in open access journal BMJ Global Health.

Given TikTok’s popularity with children, the findings underscore the need for policies that will protect them from the harmful impact of this type of social media marketing, the researchers insist.

According to the researchers, children are exposed to a large amount of unhealthy foods, high in salt, sugar and fat, online. And evidence shows that this exposure ultimately influences food preferences, purchases, demands and consumption.

TikTok users create, post, watch and interact with short videos. Since its global release, TikTok’s popularity has grown rapidly: its global monthly active users reportedly grew from 55 million in January 2018 to one 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, researchers say.

To fill this knowledge gap, the 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.

Some 539 videos were posted on the 16 accounts included, with 3% (17) posted in 2019 (the first year of posting), 37% (198) in 2020, and 60% (324) in the first 6 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%).

The engagement included instigating 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 brand imagery, 68% product images, and 41% branded effects.

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

This is an observational study, so it is impossible to establish a causal link. And the researchers acknowledge that the sampled user-generated content may not have been representative of a branded hashtag challenge. They were also unable to measure children’s exposure to brand promotional activities or user-generated content.

But they note: “Brand activity has grown rapidly – ​​with most videos being posted in the 6 months prior to data collection – and includes instigating branded hashtag challenges that encourage content generated by the user presenting 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 10 times more likes per video, on average, than those apparently unpaid, and are therefore probably important in spreading the brand hashtag. challenges, they point out.

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

And they point out that proposed UK legislation will ban all ‘paid’ online marketing of ‘less healthy food and drink’ from January 2023. But it includes an exemption for brand-only advertising and excludes marketing from the outside the UK, despite the fact that social media platforms frequently operate across international borders.

They conclude: “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.

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

Notes for editors:

To research: Turning Users into “Unofficial Brand Ambassadors”: Marketing Unhealthy Foods and Soft Drinks on TikTok doi 10.1136/bmjgh-2022-009112
Log: BMJ Global Health

Funding: None declared

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