Unhealthy food and beverage brands encourage TikTok users to market their products to them – effectively turning them into “brand ambassadors” – as well as using their own accounts for promotional activity, find a rating of video content posted on the social media platform and published in an open access magazine Global Health BMJ.
Given TikTok’s popularity with children, the findings underscore the need for policies that protect them from the harmful impact of this type of marketing on social media, the researchers insist.
Researchers say children are being exposed to a huge amount of unhealthy foods – which are high in salt, sugar and fat – to internet marketing. Evidence suggests that this exposure ultimately affects food preferences, purchasing, orders, and consumption.
TikTok users create, post, watch and interact with short videos. Since its global release, TikTok’s popularity has grown rapidly: the number of monthly active users globally has increased from 55 million in January 2018 to one billion in September 2021.
It is popular with children: more than a third of its daily users in the United States are said to be 14 or younger.
However, no study has yet looked at the impact of unhealthy food marketing on TikTok, despite calls for attention to the platform’s health effects, the researchers say.
In an effort to bridge this knowledge gap, researchers evaluated the content of all videos posted on the accounts of 16 leading food and non-alcoholic beverage brands – based on global brand engagement as of June 30, 2021.
The content and sentiments of a sample of relevant user-generated content, which was created in response to branded hashtag challenges instigated by these brands, were also evaluated.
About 539 videos were posted on 16 accounts listed, with 3% (17) posted in 2019 (the first year of publication), 37% (198) in 2020, and 60% (324) in the first six months of 2021. Four Accounts that have not posted any videos.
The number of followers of the listed accounts ranged from 14 to 1.6 million. The videos had an average of 63,400 views, 5,829 likes, 157 comments, and 36 shares per video.
The most popular marketing strategies were brands (87% of videos), product images (85%), engagement (31%), and celebrities/influencers (25%).
The post included instigating branded hashtag challenges that encouraged the creation of user-generated content featuring branded products, videos, and/or branded effects, such as posters, filters, or special effects displaying the brand.
Total group views of user-generated content from individual challenges ranged from 12.7 million to 107.9 billion. Out of a sample of 626 brand-related videos created in response to these challenges, 96% featured videos, 68% product images, and 41% branded influences.
Most portrayed a positive (73%) or neutral/unclear feeling (25%), with a few depicting a negative feeling (3%).
This is an observational study, so it cannot prove a causal relationship. The researchers acknowledge that the user-generated content samples may not be representative of a branded hashtag challenge, nor were they able to measure children’s exposure to branded promotional activities or user-generated content.
But they note that “brand activity has increased rapidly – with most videos posted in the six months prior to data collection – and includes instigating branded hashtag challenges that encourage user-generated content featuring branded products or brand-provided videos.” or branded effects.
“An analysis of a sample of user-generated content relevant to the brand that was created in response to these challenges showed that branded hashtag challenges effectively convert users, in the words of TikTok, into “unofficial brand ambassadors.”
While fewer videos were posted by users who seemed to get paid (influencers, for example), they attracted nearly 10 times as many likes per video, on average, as those that weren’t. Paying for it appears to be, and therefore potentially important in spreading the branded hashtag challenges, they point out.
“The large extent 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 in general),” they wrote.
They also highlighted that the proposed UK legislation would ban all online marketing “paid for” “less healthy food and drinks” from January 2023. But it includes an exemption for ads limited to brands only, and excludes marketing originating from outside the UK, although From the fact that social networking platforms frequently operate across international borders.
They concluded, “Our study demonstrated that TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing, including user-generated branding. Given the popularity of TikTok among children, our findings support the need for policies that protect children from the harmful influence of food marketing, Including on social media platforms.
“TikTok’s growing popularity also requires further research into its potential impact on public health and its role as an institutional political actor.”
Three-quarters of social media influencers’ posts about food and drinks are for unhealthy products
Turning users into ‘unofficial brand ambassadors’: Marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic drinks on TikTok, Global Health BMJ (2022). DOI: 10.1136 / bmjgh-2022-009112
Submitted by the British Medical Journal
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