We all want to give future generations the best chance at growing up happy and healthy. This will happen when we have an environment that enhances people’s health and wellbeing rather than undermining it.
But this is easier said than done when harmful industries spend massive amounts of money on marketing and advertising products. It’s the gambling, alcohol, unhealthy food and sugary drinks companies that target and expose children and youth to ‘dark marketing’ in order to hook them early on their harmful products.
While young people explore, learn and connect online, harmful industries are right there with them. Marketing and advertising their products anytime and anywhere they want.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat have extraordinary market power. Despite this, there are inadequate protections for children and youth in place that lack transparency and accountability.
Citizen scientists expose dark marketing
‘Dark marketing’ largely occurs under the radar and is always evolving, making it tricky to identify and control. This makes it tough to observe what marketers are doing and hold them to account.
Unlike advertising in broadcast, print and outdoor channels, advertising on digital media platforms is only visible to those who have been targeted.
‘Dark marketing’ is transient content and advertisements that do not appear on the advertiser’s mainstream branding or marketing platforms. This type of advertisement appears fleetingly only for audiences targeted explicitly by the marketer. Young citizen scientists are now calling for better protection from this type of marketing.
The citizen scientists sent the researchers 5,169 examples of unhealthy food, alcohol, and gambling advertising they saw on their social media feeds across a two-week period in mid-2021 and shared their perspectives on the ads they received.
In a study commissioned by VicHealth and conducted by researchers at Queensland University, 204 young people between 16 to 25 years volunteered to have their digital data studied. They took screenshots of ads in their feeds.
The study found:
- The average young person had 194 advertisers upload information about them in two weeks.
- According to platform algorithms, their online activity generated an average of 787 “interests” about each of them.
- “Interests” is a term used by Meta, the company owning Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp.
- The platform uses “interests” to build specific consumer profiles on its users. Marketers then use these profiles to target their advertising.
- Researchers identified 5169 instances of “dark marketing” for harmful products, including alcohol, gambling, and junk food and drinks.
Highly sophisticated marketing targeting each young person specifically
The study’s findings illustrate the pervasiveness of dark marketing targeting today’s young people.
The advertisements each young person saw were specific to that person. They were targeted based on gender and socio-economic status determined by the algorithm. As a result young men were flooded with gambling ads while young women were exposed to pink alcohol ads promoting alcohol use as fun.
It’s dark in the sense the only people who can see the ads are the people the ad is targeting,” said Nic Carah, director of digital culture and societies at Queensland University, as per The Age.Nic Carah, director of digital culture and societies, Queensland University
This type of dark marketing is almost impossible to monitor since it does not appear on the marketer’s main content and only appears for a few seconds on individual people’s newsfeeds.
- One 18-year-old from Melbourne saw an ad for a bar in Traralgon right after visiting a friend in the regional town.
- Another young person saw an ad offering them slabs of beer in exchange for excess solar power.
These examples show that young people were targeted for unhealthy product marketing based on the locality they were in as well as interests such as being eco-friendly.
Recently, advertising for “hard seltzer” products has also seen a boom. These alcoholic beverages are marketed as “healthier for you” specifically targeting young women with keywords like “low-calorie” and “preservative-free.” Previously, Movendi International has exposed Ready-To-Drink (RTDs) and hard seltzer products as alcopops dressed differently.
It [advertising] loses its public character, and that matters because our regulatory frameworks are based on the public being able to see what they’re doing,” added Nic Carah, director of digital culture and societies at Queensland University, as per The Age.Nic Carah, director of digital culture and societies, Queensland University
Young people are horrified by the level of targeted marketing for harmful products
The young people were horrified when they became more mindful of the sheer volume of targeted marketing of products that were harmful”, said Emma Saleeba from VicHealth, as per The Age.
They said the ads were creepy and manipulative.”Emma Saleeba, VicHealth
Almost all of the screenshot ads in the study could not be seen anywhere else. This makes regulation almost impossible since no one can monitor, or scrutinize exactly what is being marketed to people.
VicHealth calls for better marketing regulations to protect people from this barrage of harmful marketing. Industry voluntary advertising codes are not enough and have failed to protect citizens’ rights.
As a starting point collection of personal data for the marketing of harmful products should not be permitted without express opted-in consent, and the collection of children’s data should not be permitted at all.
We need a legislated framework with meaningful sanctions that ensures greater transparency,” said Emma Saleeba from VicHealth, as per The Age.Emma Saleeba, VicHealth
Previously Movendi International has exposed three ways that alcohol marketing harms people.
- Alcohol marketing causes harm to children and youth.
- Alcohol marketing saturates society with alcohol and perpetuates the harmful alcohol norm.
- Alcohol marketing prevents evidence-based alcohol industry regulation.
A recent report by the World Health Organization highlighted the increasing use of sophisticated online marketing techniques by the alcohol industry.
The one effective solution to tackle the harms caused by alcohol marketing is banning alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion to protect people and vulnerable groups. The next best option is to develop comprehensive, statutory regulations to place common-sense limits on alcohol marketing. As the WHO report highlights there is a need for more effective regulation of alcohol marketing that transcends borders.