July 27, 2022 — Unhealthy F&B brands encourage TikTok users to market their products for them — effectively making them “brand ambassadors” — and use their own accounts for promotional activities. Evidence has shown that this exposure to children ultimately influences food preferences, purchases, desires and consumption.
The findings, published in the open-access journal BMJ Global Health, underscore the need for policies that protect children from the harmful effects of this type of social media marketing, the researchers point out.
influence of social media
TikTok users create, post, watch and interact with short videos. Since its release, the social media platform has grown in popularity rapidly. Global monthly active users have reportedly increased from 55 million in January 2018 to 1 billion in September 2021.
And it’s popular with kids: over a third of its daily users in the US are reportedly aged 14 or younger.
So far, however, no study has looked at the impact of unhealthy food marketing on TikTok, despite calls for paying attention to the platform’s health impacts, the researchers point out.
To fill this knowledge gap, the researchers evaluated the content of all videos posted to the accounts of 16 leading 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 brand hashtag challenges initiated by these brands were also assessed.
About 539 videos were posted to 16 included accounts, with 3% (17) in 2019, 37% (198) in 2020, and 60% (324) in the first six months of 2021. Four accounts had no posted videos.
The number of followers of the included accounts ranged from 14 to 1.6 million. 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 initiating branded hashtag challenges that encouraged the creation of user-generated content with branded products, videos, and/or branded effects such as stickers, filters, or branded special effects.
Total collective views of UGC from individual challenges ranged from 12.7 million to 107.9 billion. Among a sample of 626 brand-relevant videos created in response to these challenges, 96% contained branding, 68% contained product images, and 41% contained branding effects.
Most showed positive (73%) or neutral/unclear (25%) sentiment, with few negative (3%).
Advertising activities analyzed
The study is observational, so it cannot determine causality, the researchers explain. You acknowledge that the sampled User Generated Content may not pose a brand hashtag challenge. They were also unable to measure children’s exposure to promotional activities or user-generated content from brands.
But they say, “Brand activity has increased rapidly — with most videos posted in the six months prior to data collection — and includes the initiation of branded hashtag challenges that promote user-generated content featuring branded products, brand-provided videos, or branded effects.
“Analysis of a sample of brand-relevant user-generated content created in response showed that branded hashtag challenges effectively turn users into ‘unofficial brand ambassadors,’ as TikTok puts it.”
While fewer videos were posted by users who appeared to be paid (e.g., influencers), these received, on average, nearly 10 times as many likes per video as those that appeared to be unpaid, and are therefore likely important in spreading brand hashtag challenges, outline the explorers.
“The considerable reach of influencer marketing is of concern, as exposure to influencer marketing for unhealthy foods has been shown to increase energy intake (from unhealthy foods and overall),” they write.
And the researchers also stress that proposed UK legislation will ban all “paid” online marketing for “less healthy food and drink” from January 2023.
But it includes an exception for pure brand advertising and excludes marketing originating outside the UK, although social networking platforms often operate cross-border.
“Our study showed that TikTok is an emerging source for unhealthy food marketing, including marketing created by users at the instigation of brands. Given the popularity of TikTok among children, our results support the need for policies that protect children from the harmful effects of food advertising, including those on social networking platforms,” the researchers explain.
“The rising popularity of TikTok also calls for further research into its potential public health impact and its role as a corporate policy actor,” they conclude.
The impact on children
UK child obesity rates should halve by 2030, according to a recent analysis. Still, projections have indicated that if current trends continue, childhood obesity will increase by 15% among four to five year olds and 20% among ten to eleven year olds.
The World Health Organization recently highlighted the harmful effects of food marketing on children. As overweight and obesity in children are emerging as global public health concerns, the organization addresses the pressing issue by outlining the threats to the food market and the responsibilities of governments.
Meanwhile, Unilever previously raised the age for restricting F&B marketing to children between 13 and 16 to recognize the impact social media and digital advertising can have on young people.
Edited by Elizabeth Green
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