Food and beverage marketing on Facebook

We know that obesity is an important, costly, and common issue. While government action is stalled, and debates rage about the best way to combat this growing health crisis, junk food producers continue to aggressively promote and sell large amounts of food and beverages that are high in energy and low in nutrition.

This industry targets young people between 15 and 24 years old. This young group spends an average of A$180 per person per week for food and non-alcoholic beverages, and the majority (85%) use social networking and gaming on the internet. It’s no surprise that marketers have a strong grip on Facebook.

The ubiquitous presence of marketing for food and beverages is one of the most powerful factors in the environment that influences the rise of obesity. Alarmingly, young adults in Australia are becoming fatter faster than any other age group. A third (35.5%) (Australians aged between 15 and 24 years) are overweight or obese.

It is crucial to prevent weight gain during this age range because a healthy adult weight will make it easier for you to maintain that weight throughout your life.

What are the ways that companies use Facebook?

The research on the extent and nature of junk food advertising has been mainly focused on children’s television ads. In the age of social networks, however, this type of focus is unlikely to capture the kinds of food and beverage marketing that adolescents and young adults will most likely view.

We investigated the top-ranked brands of food and drinks on Facebook to understand how they use social media to reach out to young Australians. It is the first time that a study has been conducted to assess the nature and extent of food and beverage promotions on Facebook, the most popular social networking site in the world. Today, our results are published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The young Australians gain weight more quickly than any other group. Corey Holms/Flickr CC-BY-NC ND

We evaluated 27 Facebook pages of food and beverage brands based on their marketing strategies, engagement with followers, and potential reach. These pages covered fast food restaurants as well as chocolate, energy drinks, soft drinks with added sugar, and sweetened drinks. They also included spreads, biscuits, and salty snacks.

Online social networks are awash with junk food and drinks. They are also seamlessly integrated into the marketing of these products. We found that many pages used social media features to increase consumer engagement and interaction, including competitions, interactive games, and apps.

The pages were equally popular with adolescents (aged 13-17) and young adults (aged 18-24).

These Facebook pages were not amateur fan pages or low-budget sites but were clearly part of a larger marketing strategy. These were not amateur or low-budget fan pages but were clearly part of a marketing strategy.

Bubble O’Bill Ice Cream was the most popular food and beverage brand page on Facebook in Australia. The administrators responded to almost every post on its timeline, and they engaged in post comments each day. This may have contributed to its popularity.

Four of the four brand pages featured a Facebook application that allowed customers to place orders without leaving Facebook. The order apps were advertised by offering Facebook users exclusive menus and price upgrades. The inclusion of an easy-to-use purchase option that is seamlessly integrated into a customer’s Facebook friends network encourages impulse purchases.

Facebook pages for energy drinks and soft drinks were very popular, indicating the popularity of these products among adolescents and young adults. Sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor to obesity and have been the subject of controversial tax policy reform proposals.

Young people visit these brands almost daily. Pages posted new content on average every two days. Some pages are even posted multiple times per day. This activity, combined with the habitual logins of Facebook users, allows marketing messages to reach a much wider audience. Food and beverage companies are able to spread their marketing messages with little or no incentive.

Policy and Practice Implications

According to a study, those who felt a strong positive emotion while viewing the Facebook content of food and beverage brands were 3.25 times more likely to recommend them and 2.5 times more likely to prefer them.

If Facebook makes you feel good, it’s more likely that you will believe the marketing pitch of a product. Nathan Cooke/Flickr CC-BY-NC SA

In contrast, many of the most successful public health behavior change campaigns generated negative emotions. These messages may not have been as effective on social media, where people are able to avoid them. Facebook content that makes people feel good may be a sign that messages about health that work in other media won’t work on social media.

Marketing junk food is a popular choice for young adults. This age group has received little attention in terms of research, policy, or resources. However, we do know that factors like identity development and changing interpersonal influences separate young adulthood from the other stages of life and influence both healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

Voluntary agreements currently in place on junk food advertising limit the amount of advertising that is allowed during TV programs targeted at very young children. Due to this narrow approach, junk food companies are able to claim that they can legitimately market their products to older children and youth. The restrictions on junk food advertising should be extended to internet-based advertisements and aim to protect older youth and children.

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