Bethany Dortmans, on behalf of The Cancer Council Vic, reports on a recent roundtable focussing on the role of digital media in promoting junk food to young people
The rise of social media and digital marketing is exposing young children and teenagers to junk food advertising from all directions, according to key figures in obesity prevention.
The “absolute saturation of advertising” coming from junk food companies such as Coca Cola, Red Bull and Pringles was discussed at length at Digitisation and Fragmentation: the next frontier for junk food marketers, public health organisations, parents and regulators on March 21, sponsored by the Obesity Prevention Coalition (OPC) and Deakin University’s Centre for Sustainable and Responsible Organisations. The panel discussion, facilitated by Dr Paul Harrison, took a close look at the food industry’s use of digital media to collect information about young consumers and shape behaviours.
With 90% of children in Australia having regular access to the internet via school or their homes, and 96% of 9-11 year-olds accessing the internet every day, many parents feel powerless to compete with the constant bombardment of advertising, says Corrina Langelaan, Campaign Manager at The Parents’ Jury.
Seven of the top 10 most popular Facebook pages in Australia belonged to companies promoting junk foods such as Coca Cola, Skittles, Domino Pizza, Bubble O Bill, Pringles, Red Bull and Oreos, and the biggest group these were reaching were 13-17-year-olds, she said.
“It is very difficult for parents to fight this insidious marketing that is coming from every which way,” she said.
One example that was raised was the ‘Share a Virtual Coke App’ which allows a user to create a Coke can with a Facebook friend’s name on it, which can then be shared with the friend.
“They’re really building up a picture of kids and adolescents, who are also very vulnerable, and engaging with them … and shaping their behaviour, and it’s very powerful, insidious and subtle,” said Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the OPC.
“Parents aren’t always there to keep their children safe; they’re not standing behind their child when they’re online.
“The Hungry Jack’s app is collecting all kinds of information about where your child is – in fact they probably know more about where your kid is at any one time than you do.”
Ms Martin said such apps were dressed up to be “fun” for children who were unaware of the risks of information sharing, which was exploiting children’s vulnerability.
“As a society, what should we be doing to expose that and ameliorate it and raise it as an issue with regulators?”
Professor Jerome Williams from Rutgers University in New Jersey, US, said behavioural targeting, through which advertising is tailored to the individual, was being used by the food industries to complement mass marketing.
“I really believe in the future, you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look into a window and there will be an ad directly targeting you based on all your purchases in the past six months. That’s the direction we’re going in.”
Ms Martin said there were currently no restrictions on junk food advertising aired during popular children’s programs on TV, the medium which she said was still the “cornerstone” of advertising.
“We have high-rating programs full of ads for unhealthy food.
“This is so out of keeping with the Australian dietary guidelines that were released last week. It’s the exact opposite of what we should be eating, that’s being promoted, and millions of dollars are being spent. The health system eventually will be mopping it up.”
Professor Rob Moodie from the University of Melbourne said self-regulation of junk food advertising had failed and there had been very few incentives to impose more regulation over the years. “Self-regulation is like having the burglars install your locks. We have not seen that work.”
Options such as the introduction of junk food taxes, restrictions on junk food branding in sport and regulating TV advertising were raised as potential first steps in tackling the environmental drivers of obesity.
Ms Langelaan said the onus did not rest solely on parents; battling childhood obesity would take a collaborative approach.
“Parents are of course part of the solution, but it’s not up them alone. Everybody has a role to play, and that’s industry, and that’s government, and that’s schools.”
Ms Langelaan added that she hopes “online activism” such as the satirical version of the recent Coke ’Coming Together’ campaign becomes a trend as the next generation of tech-savvy parents take to the internet to combat the problem.