A new report by VicHealth, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) provides evidence for the pervasive harmful marketing targeting children in Australia.

The report highlights several issues children face in the digital age due to predatory marketing of harmful industries such as alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. Children’s personal data are under-protected making it easily accessible to these industries who then use the data to target children aggressively. The problem is exacerbated during the ongoing pandemic as children are spending more time online for their educational and entertainment needs.

Evidence shows that exposure to unhealthy marketing can have long-term consequences on children.

There is an urgent need for the Australian government to take necessary policy action to limit child exposure to unhealthy, aggressive predatory marketing by health harmful industries.

The report highlights that:

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, one in two Australian children increased their time on screens and digital media for entertainment (online gaming, social media and watching video content), with three in four school-aged children spending more than three hours on screens each day.
  • An estimated 72 million data points will have been collected by companies on each child by the age of 13. This can be sold to marketers who can effectively target and attract each child.
  • According to Facebook monitoring, 740,000 children were interested in gambling, and a further 940,000 children were interested in alcohol products in 2018.

This report highlights the worrying fact that digital marketing for alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling is reaching children at a very young age, affecting their attitudes, habits, consumption – and health,” said Dr. Sandro Demaio, CEO, VicHealth, as per VicHealth website.

These consequences could be lifelong, determining the habits they form and the quality of life they can achieve.”

Dr. Sandro Demaio, CEO, VicHealth
Children tagged by Facebook as interested in alcohol products
In 2018, 940,000 children were tagged by Facebook as interested in alcohol products.

Children are now growing up with the digital world and it is an important aspect of their lives. They gain value from their digital connections. Digital technology allows children to take part in education, connect with others and access entertainment. This has become even more essential during the ongoing pandemic.

Health harmful industries are increasingly using innovative digital marketing approaches to attract children to their harmful products. Often children and even adults can not distinguish what is an advertisement and what is not.

Summary findings from the report

  1. Setting the scene: children are surrounded by digital marketing of harmful products via websites, social media, gaming and influencers. Their viewing and browsing habits are also being monitored and recorded by harmful industries, to be used for marketing and promotion.
  2. Marketing of harmful products: digital marketing reaches young children, with evidence that this affects their attitudes, habits, consumption and health later in life.
  3. The digital marketing mix: children are exposed to a growing range of marketing activities online, a mix of clear advertising and more subtle techniques, which are harder to recognize by children and adults.
  4. The current (limited) protections in Australia: the framework overseeing digital advertising of harmful products to children is designed by harmful industries and prioritizes profits over children’s health and wellbeing.
  5. Responses from around the world: efforts are under way in many countries to protect children’s online privacy and digital marketing of harmful products to children.
  6. Conclusion: time to act: a combined, system-wide approach is needed to make sure children can enjoy being online, but are protected from the marketing of harmful industries.

Based on the findings VicHealth, FARE and the OPC call for strong, evidence-based policies and government regulation to protect children from digital marketing by harmful industries. Such restrictions must ensure:

  • Children are protected from digital marketing by harmful industries.
  • Children’s data is better protected, so harmful industries can’t use it to target them with marketing.
  • Social media influencers with large followings of children cannot promote harmful products.
  • Harmful industries report how much they spend on digital marketing each year, how they collect and use personal information and how they target people via digital marketing.

This should be backed up by stronger monitoring to provide a better picture of how harmful industries market their products through action in 3 areas:

  1. Platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat) ensure that their processes are clear and protect children’s privacy and data online.
  2. Industries marketing alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling ensure harmful products are not advertised to children, including through influencers.
  3. Advertising agencies ensure they have processes in place to stop the supply of inappropriate marketing to children.

In Australia, the limited framework governing the digital advertising of harmful products that children are exposed to is industry-designed and industry-led, and it does little to protect our kids,” said Caterina Giorgi, Chief Executive Officer of FARE, as per Mirage.

These industry codes prioritize industry profits and there are little to no sanctions when companies break the rules.”

Caterina Giorgi, Chief Executive Officer, FARE

Predatory marketing: Long-term harm

Evidence suggests:

  • Exposure to alcohol marketing increases young people’s consumption and increases the chances that they will start to consume alcohol at a younger age.
  • Over half (55%) of Australian 11–16-year-olds recall seeing gambling advertisements on social media.
  • 97.7% of the social casino games available for download on Android have an age rating of 12+ or younger.
  • 38% of YouTube ads are for food and beverages – the majority of which are unhealthy products.
  • One in four celebrity endorsements of products on social media are for unhealthy foods – and children are more likely to share these posts than posts for healthier products.

Alcohol marketing self-regulation code in Australia the “ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code” has failed to protect children, youth and vulnerable people from exposure to alcohol marketing for many years in Australia. Public health advocates and activists have been calling on the government to implement independent mandatory marketing restrictions and regulations for alcohol which prioritize public health instead of private profits.

How Big Alcohol manipulates youth on digital media

Observation of Facebook pages of some Big Alcohol brands shows how the alcohol industry is manipulating Australian youth by inserting alcohol and their brands into all aspects of youth life. Young people are kept attracted to these pages with various marketing tactics ranging from:

  • Alcoholic popsicle recipes,
  • Free merchandise,
  • Invitations to events, and
  • Giveaways to international festivals.

Big Alcohol is also using brand advocates and influencers to make heavy alcohol use normalized among youth by promoting alcohol use on school nights and suggest adding ‘slurp’ to the familiar Cancer Council ‘slip slop slap’ slogan. Young people also get influenced by other young people who post on social media.

The ABAC fails to protect youth as well as children from this type of pervasive marketing. The code is not a law and hence not mandatory but rather voluntary. Not all alcohol companies have even volunteered to adhere to the code. Even those who have signed up do not always adhere to this code. Since there are no legal consequences the industry often overlooks the code.

The extent of the failure can be determined by the fact that, in 2015 the ABAC received 133 complaints about ads for alcohol. Only 7 complaints led to ads being removed. Recent examples of promotions that attracted complaints that were dismissed include a Facebook post that comprised an image of a shed lined with 9,000 empty VB cans and a response comment from VB commending the shed’s architects on their alcohol use efforts and promising to deliver a few slabs as a reward.

It is long past time for the Australian government to implement evidence-based alcohol marketing restrictions and to create an independent authority to enforce the restrictions.


VicHealth: “Harmful industries’ digital marketing to Australian children

Mirage: “Aussie kids at risk as harmful digital marketing grows

VicHealth: “How the alcohol industry misleads young people on Facebook