Junk food brands turn to TikTok to further exploit children – study

By our News Team | 2022

Research by Australian academics shows how companies are using the growing TikTok platform to push unhealthy eating amongst kids.

New research by an Australian university has shed light on what it calls “the highly exploitative actions” of junk food companies using TikTok – a social media platform hugely popular with children – to recruit users as virtual brand ambassadors to market their products online.

In an analysis of content posted on the TikTok accounts of 16 of the world’s top-selling food and non-alcoholic beverage brands, researchers from Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) found that companies are using a range of marketing strategies that directly appeal to children, including promoting hashtag challenges that encourage users to create and share videos featuring their branding and products.

Marketing Ethics

Photo by Cottonbro from Pexels

For example Doritos, brand of flavoured tortilla chips, created a hashtag challenge calling for users to create and share videos of themselves eating one of their products, while McDonald’s asked users to record themselves singing alongside a video featuring images of a McDonald’s product.

The research found that the videos created and shared by TikTok users in response to such challenges overwhelmingly featured the companies’ branding and products, portrayed a positive sentiment and were viewed billions of times.

Videos related to a single hashtag challenge started by Pepsi, for example, collectively received 107.9-billion views.

Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer said that by encouraging TikTok users to respond to hashtag challenges and create and share content featuring companies’ branding and products, TikTok has turned users into active participants in the marketing of junk food.

“This is an incredibly insidious strategy by TikTok and junk food marketing companies,” Backholer stated. “TikTok’s own website describes these challenges as an opportunity for companies to turn TikTok users into their ‘unofficial brand ambassadors’ and we know that many TikTok users are children.”

The study is claimed to be the first to look at the way junk food companies market their products using TikTok, a platform that currently has more than a billion monthly users.

Social media users receive little to no reward

Lead author, Ruby Brooks, an Associate Research Fellow at GLOBE, said while junk food companies benefit from this marketing, users receive little to no reward and expose other users to even more junk food marketing.

“We know that food marketing influences kids’ food preferences, purchasing, requests and consumption,” Brooks noted.

Other marketing strategies used by junk food companies on TikTok included the use of celebrities or influencers and sportspeople. 

McDonald’s, for example, used the K-pop band BTS to promote the ‘BTS Meal’ (which included a sauce with packaging that could be used to ‘unlock’ a branded effect featuring the band on TikTok) and to promote ‘BTS x McDonald’s Collaboration Merch’. Similarly, Pepsi featured multiple professional soccer players, including Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba, drinking its products.

“Strong government-led policies to protect children from the harmful impact of unhealthy food marketing are urgently needed. This is about putting our children’s health before industry profits,” Backholer said.

The GLOBE research team, working with Deakin University’s Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) have been looking at other concerning tactics used by food companies, including their use of artificial intelligence to influence customers’ behaviour.

“By looking at company documents, we found that companies are using facial recognition to estimate customers’ age, sex and mood to tailor foods that are shown back to customers on menu boards,” Brooks explained.

“These companies predominantly sell unhealthy foods and the use of tactics like these is likely to drive increased selection and consumption of these foods.”

Added Backholer: “Our study highlights the need for greater scrutiny of  the actions of big food companies, but also of the big technology companies that work with food companies.” 

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    Dr Kin Kariisa

    Group CEO - Next Media

    Dr. Kin Kariisa is an extraordinary force at the helm of Next Media Services, a conglomerate encompassing NBS TV, Nile Post, Sanyuka TV, Next Radio, Salam TV, Next Communication, Next Productions, and an array of other influential enterprises. His dynamic role as Chief Executive Officer exemplifies his unwavering commitment to shaping media, business, and community landscapes.
    With an esteemed academic journey, Dr. Kariisa’s accolades include an Honorary PhD in exemplary community service from the United Graduate College inTexas, an MBA from United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering from Huazong University in China, and a Bachelor’s degree in Statistics from Makerere University.
    Dr. Kariisa pursued PhD research in Computer Security and Identity Management at Security of Systems Group, Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. As a dynamic educator, he has shared his expertise as a lecturer of e-Government and Information Security at both Makerere University and Radboud University.

    Dr Kin did his PhD research in Computer Security and Identity Management at Security of Systems Group, Radbond University in Nigmegen, Netherlands. He previously served as a lecturer of e-Government and Information Security at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and Radbond University in Netherlands.

    Dr Kin did his postgraduate courses in Strategic Business Management, Strategic Leadership Communication and Strategies for Leading Successful Change Initiatives at Harvard University, Boston USA.

    • Other current and previous roles played by Dr Kin Kariisa:
    • Lecturer of e-Government and Information Security to graduate students at Makerere University, Kampala and Radbond University in the Netherlands
    • Director of Eco Bank Uganda Limited, one of the largest banks in Africa
    • Chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, an umbrella industry association for all Television, Radio and online broadcasters in Uganda.
    • Chairman of Board of Directors of Nile Hotel International, that owns the leading hotel in Uganda, Kampala Serena Hotel.
    • Chairman of Board of Directors of Soliton Telmec Uganda, the leading telecom company in Optic fibre business managing over 80% of optic fibre in Uganda.