Junk food brands are turning TikTok users into free ‘brand ambassadors’

LONDON — Junk food brands have apparently found a bunch of new employees to handle their marketing on social media — TikTok users. A new study reveals that food and beverage brands are encouraging people to show off these generally unhealthy foods.

Health food experts argue that, because of the platform’s popularity with children, there needs to be policies which protect them from unhealthy advertising. Study authors found these companies are effectively turning people into “brand ambassadors” — as well as using their own accounts for promotional messaging.

The team assessed video content posted on the social media platform and discovered that children encounter a “vast amount” of unhealthy food marketing online — featuring products high in salt, sugar, and fat. The evidence shows that this exposure ultimately influences a child’s food preferences, buying habits, and overall diet.

1 in 3 TikTok users are children

TikTok users create, post, watch, and engage with short videos that are anywhere from 15 seconds to three minutes long. Since its launch, TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed, with the number of monthly active users rising from 55 million in January 2018 to one billion in September 2021. More than a third of its daily users in the U.S. are reportedly under the age of 14.

Despite its immense popularity, researchers have not looked at the platform’s impact on unhealthy food marketing — despite calls for more research into the health implications of social media.

Study authors examined the videos on the accounts of 16 leading food and non-alcoholic drink brands — based on their global brand share. They also assessed the content and sentiments shared on the platform by TikTok users responding to each company’s branded hashtag challenges.

Overall, the study included 539 videos posted on the 16 company accounts between 2019 and 2021. Four of these companies did not post anything new during this time.

As for their influence, the companies had anywhere from 14 to 1.6 million followers online. Their videos received an average of 63,400 views, 5,829 likes, 157 comments, and 36 shares per post. The most common marketing strategies involved branding (87% of the videos), product images (85%), engagement (31%), and appearances by celebrities or influencers (25%).

Branded hashtag challenges encouraged users to create their own content featuring the brand’s products, videos, or branded effects — including stickers, filters, or other special effects with the company’s brand on it.

Junk food videos get billions of views

When you factor in the content created by fans of these junk food brands, the total number of views involving these challenge videos ranged from 12.7 million to 107.9 billion. Among a sample of 626 brand-relevant videos created in response to these challenges, 96 percent featured branding, 68 percent included product images, and 41 percent used branded effects.

Three in four (73%) portrayed these products in a positive light, with only three percent presenting a negative opinion of junk food.

“Brand activity has rapidly increased—with most videos posted in the 6 months preceding data collection—and includes instigation of branded hashtag challenges that encourage user-generated content featuring brand products, brand-supplied videos or branded effects,” researchers say in a media release.

“Analysis of a sample of brand-relevant user-generated content created in response to these showed that branded hashtag challenges are effectively turning users into, in TikTok’s words, ‘unofficial brand ambassadors’.”

Researchers add that while there were fewer videos from paid influencers, these posts attracted nearly 10 times as many likes in comparison to videos from regular fans.

“The substantial reach of influencer marketing is concerning given that exposure to influencer marketing of unhealthy foods has been shown to increase energy intake (from unhealthy foods and overall),” study authors say.

Can governments step in?

The research team notes that proposed U.K. legislation will ban all “paid-for” online marketing of “less healthy food and drink” starting in January 2023. However, it includes an exemption for brand-only advertising, and excludes marketing originating outside the country. Study authors add social networking platforms frequently operate across international borders.

“Our study has shown that TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing, including that created by users at the instigation of brands. Given TikTok’s popularity among children, our findings support the need for policies that protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing, including that on social networking platforms,” researchers conclude.

“TikTok’s rising popularity also calls for further research into its potential impact on public health and its role as a corporate political actor.”

The findings are published in BMJ Global Health.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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