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Digital marketing enhancing unhealthy choices

Research finds unhealthy advertising flies under the radar. 

Exposure to online marketing for unhealthy products could have a detrimental impact on young adults, according to researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW).

A recently released study, entitled ‘Exposure to digital marketing enhances young adults’ interest in energy drinks: An exploratory investigation’, examined the effects of online marketing on the consumption behaviours of young adults, using energy drinks as a case example.

The research, undertaken by PhD student Limin Buchanan, Dr Bridget Kelly and Professor Heather Yeatman from UOW’s School of Health and Society, targeted young adults aged 18-24 years of age – a group who consume more unhealthy food than any other age group (Data: Australian National Health Survey).

Through surveys and semi-structured interviews, researchers were able to gain an understanding of young people’s attitudes towards energy drinks, conducting controlled exposure to the websites and social media sites of two popular energy drinks for a period of time and comparing test results to a control group.

PhD student Limin Buchanan from UOW’s School of Health and Society said the research clearly demonstrates the impact of online marketing on young adults.

“After a short exposure to digital marketing materials, participants had a better impression of, greater purchase intention and were more likely to consume energy drinks,” she said.

“Our findings suggest that although young adults realised the online materials were designed to promote energy drink products, they were not necessarily capable to defend themselves against marketing content such as the brands’ community involvement, contribution to charities, and environmentally friendly efforts. Young adults also valued the ‘honesty’ of the brands by declaring the contents of their drink.

“Surprisingly, we found that central cues, such as corporate social responsibility as demonstrated by the brands, had greater impacts on the young adults than emotional appeals.”

Limin said one of the key takeaways from the study was the need for better regulatory measures to be put in place to protect young consumers.

“Many people have access to the Internet 24/7 through their smart phone, which means we are being exposed to online marketing content all the time. Our smart phones know where we are, what we like; and subsequently marketers use our personal data to promote things that we may be interested in,” she said.

“Greater understanding of how online marketing influences young adults’ attitudes and behaviours can inform public health professionals to come up with strategies to counteract the unhealthy food marketing activities online.

“Our study highlights the need to strengthen regulatory policies relating to online environments. Due to their strong online presence and the pervasive yet less scrutinised marketing activities on digital platforms, it is likely that they (young adults) have been exposed to all sorts of marketing activities online.

“The current marketing and advertising code in Australia does not cover digital media and young adults over 18 years old are certainly not protected by any regulations.”

The research paper was published in PLOS ONE.