Young citizen scientists expose harmful industries tactics

Young people across Victoria continue to feel bombarded by digital marketing of harmful products on social media, which they describe as ‘creepy’ and ‘manipulative’.

VicHealth, Monash University and The University of Queensland partnered with 204 participants (aged 16-25) to look at how alcohol, unhealthy food, sugary drinks and gambling products were promoted to them online, and how it made them feel.

The participants, taking on the role of ‘citizen scientists’, provided the researchers with 5,169 examples of advertising for unhealthy food, alcohol and gambling they saw on their social media feeds across a two-week period.

It raised the concern of the citizen scientists, who experienced this first-hand.

“This experience was eye opening. I became aware of just how many advertisements I am exposed to throughout the day, and how the majority of ads are for unhealthy food/activities,” Rupert, aged 20, said.

Through the research, we discovered that:

  • 97% of the ads seen and shared by the citizen scientists were “dark” to some degree. By “dark” it means that they are only visible to those targeted by the advertisers, are fleeting, and not published on advertiser accounts where they can be viewed.

  • The citizen scientists in our study had 194 advertisers upload data about them, and the advertising model had generated 787 interests about them. Meta’s ad model is tuned to learn what we like and attach labels, which are called interests, to our personal profile. Interests are then used to learn our about our habits, including those relating to harmful and addictive products.

  • 81% of the citizen scientists think advertising of unhealthy industries should be reduced and regulated. They described the use of their data to target them with advertising as “manipulative”.

VicHealth’s Manager of Commercial Determinants of Health, Emma Saleeba, was disturbed by the findings.

“Our younger generations are more engaged with technology than ever before. We’re seeing young people rely heavily on this technology for their education, social connection and entertainment.

“Marketing reaches young people as children and then into young adulthood and affects their attitudes, habits, consumption and health throughout their lives.”

“It’s important to foster an environment which improves our health and wellbeing. Not one that exposes us to harmful and addictive products.

The study also reveals an emerging trend, more and more ads on social media are delivered with a call-to-action button, such as ‘Shop now’ or ‘Learn more’. These buttons push the ad to a shoppable product, directly linking the moment of persuasion to an opportunity for purchase – ultimately leading to consumption.

Unlike a billboard or television ad, digital marketing is dark and uniquely difficult to monitor.

University of Queensland Associate Professor Nicholas Carah believes these results can be the catalyst for change.

“The evidence presented here can inform the development of monitoring and regulation of digital marketing by harmful industries,” Professor Carah said.

“The citizen scientists in our study expressed significant concern about unhealthy advertising on digital media platforms and a strong appetite for higher standards.”

This view was shared by Dr Brady Robards, Senior Research Fellow, Sociology at Monash University.

“They don’t want that kind of material in their feeds, as they see it as manipulative, creepy, and damaging. They also have ideas on how this regulation should work, both on the industry and platform ends.”

Digital marketing by harmful industries remains largely unregulated and is mostly governed by industry codes which are inadequate, ineffective, and lack transparency and accountability.

It largely occurs under the radar and is always evolving, making it difficult to identify and control.

We need higher standards to be legislated for marketing of harmful products. This needs to be independent of industry, to ensure a safe and healthy online environment for everyone; especially for those most at risk from harm including young people and young adults…

Find information here relating to the research findings and unpack our 2020 ‘Under the Radar’ research on harmful industries digital marketing to children here.

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