Following the first study of its kind, to systematically assess the nature of food and drink promotions on Facebook, scientists believe they now fully understand how junk food brands engage with connected youngsters.
"Our findings show that unhealthy food and beverage marketing is prolific and seamlessly integrated within online social networks," said lead author Dr Becky Freeman of the University of Sydney's school of public health.
"Adolescents and young adults are engaging with brands like Dominos, Slurpee and Skittles on Facebook on a near-daily basis.”
Spreading the word
Social media use has reached near saturation among young Australians, with more than 85% of those aged 15 to 24 years regularly going online for social networking or gaming.
Australians are especially enthusiastic Facebook users, with 9m people, or nearly 40% of the entire population, visiting the site every day.
"Given the exponential growth in use of social media websites such as Facebook among young people, there is a need to understand the techniques and reach of this kind of marketing on these sites,” continued Dr Freeman.
"Soft drinks and energy drink brand pages are hugely popular on Facebook, reflecting the high consumption of these products among adolescents and young adults.”
The study used a sample of top-ranked Facebook pages of food manufacturers, food brands, retailers and restaurants. The resulting analysis reviewed 27 food and beverage brand Facebook pages on the basis of their marketing techniques, follower engagement and marketing reach of messages posted by the pages.
"Young Facebook users willingly spread marketing messages on behalf of food and beverage corporations with seemingly little incentive or reward required.
"Any activity that users engage with on brand pages can appear in the news feed of their friends, so marketing messages quickly amplify across social networks. This kind of consumer involvement and engagement is unique to social media communication.”
Results showed that competitions, giveaways and aligning with positive events such as Australia Day were found to be effective means of engagement between users and the food companies.
"The Facebook pages in our study were not simply low-budget fan pages, all were professionally moderated and appeared to be administered by either the company brand owner or an advertising agency," Dr Freeman added.
"In terms of health policy, much of the current work to limit exposure to EDNP advertising is focused on restricting advertisements during children's television programs and viewing hours. Our study shows that this narrow focus is likely to miss large amount of online advertising aimed at adolescents.
"As a minimal first step, increased monitoring of how EDNP food and beverages are marketed on social media is essential.
"Our study focused on Australian Facebook users, however our findings have international relevance given that many of the pages in our study were for global brands.”