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Dark marketing tactics of harmful industries exposed by young citizen scientists

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We all want to give future generations the best shot at growing up happy and healthy. This will happen when we have an environment that enhances people’s health and wellbeing rather than undermining it.

But this is easier said than done when harmful industries invest big bucks in marketing and advertising products. We’re talking about gambling, alcohol, unhealthy food and sugary drinks. 

While young people explore, learn and connect online, harmful industries are right there with them. Marketing and advertising their products anytime and anywhere they want.  

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat have extraordinary market power. Despite this, there are inadequate industry codes in place that lack transparency and accountability.  

It largely occurs under the radar and is always evolving, making it tricky to identify and control. This makes it tough to observe what marketers are doing and hold them to account.  

Unlike advertising in broadcast, print and outdoor channels, advertising on digital media platforms is only visible to those who have been targeted.   

A crucial way to find out what marketers are doing is to ask young people to show us the ads they see. VicHealth, Monash University and The University of Queensland partnered with 204 citizen scientists (aged 16-25) to look at how alcohol, unhealthy food, sugary drinks and gambling products were promoted to them online. 

The citizen scientists sent the researchers 5,169 examples of unhealthy food, alcohol, and gambling advertising they saw on their social media feeds across a two-week period in mid-2021 and shared their perspectives on the ads they received. 

Participants also downloaded and shared information that Facebook created about them in its advertising model. Meta’s advertising model is tuned to “learn” predispositions toward the consumption of harmful and addictive commodities and reinforce them by assigning “interests” related to those products.  

  • Latest findings
    • 83 young people aged 16–25 years had a list of over 16,000 entries for “advertisers who’ve uploaded data about you” and over 63,000 “interests” that Facebook’s advertising model had assigned to them.
    • On average, participants had 194 advertisers upload data about them, and the advertising model has generated 787 interests about them. The average young person had 6.3 alcohol-related interests and 39 unhealthy food interests. 21% had gambling as an interest.
    • Facebook’s advertising model has assigned alcohol-related interests to participants in our study who are under the age of 18. 41 alcohol-related interests were assigned to 5 participants who were 17 years old. These include “alcohol”, “alcoholic drink”, “bars”, “bartender”, “beer” and a number of major alcohol brands. Two alcohol retailers had uploaded data about a 17 year old participant.
    • 54 participants in the study were underage. Participants aged 16 and 17 years old captured 104 alcohol ads, 50 gambling ads, and 737 unhealthy food ads:
    • 17.2% of these underage participants reported seeing targeted alcohol ads regularly on social media, with a further 41.4% seeing them sometimes, and 34.5% ‘barely ever’. Only 6.9% of our underage participants reported ‘never’ seeing alcohol advertising. 39.6% reported seeing gambling and sports betting ads regularly, 22.4% sometimes, 19% barely ever and another 19% never.
    • It’s highly unethical that social media companies can harvest our kids’ data and then weaponise it to target them with ads for harmful products like alcohol, gambling and unhealthy food. We need to put our kids’ health first and set higher standards for how companies market products known to be associated with poorer health.

      - Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO, VicHealth

      It’s alarming the number of data points that social media companies are allowed to collect about underage users. This research shows we need to bring regulation into the 21st century to ensure a safe and healthy online environment for young people.

      -Lead Researcher University of Queensland Associate Professor Nicholas Carah
  • Other findings
    • On average, each citizen scientist sent the researchers 23 harmful industry ads over the two-week period, and many said they could have sent more. The participants who sent in the most screenshots received an average of 105 harmful industry ads.
    • This experience was eye opening. I became aware of just how many advertisements I am exposed to throughout the day, and how the vast majority of the ads are for unhealthy food/activities.” (Rupert, 20, male). 

      • 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.
      • Participants downloaded and shared information that Facebook created about them in its advertising model. This data indicates that on average, the young Victorians in the study had 194 advertisers upload data about them, and the advertising model had generated 787 interests about them. Meta’s advertising model is tuned to “learn” predispositions toward the consumption of harmful and addictive commodities and reinforce them by assigning “interests” related to those products.
      • 81% of young people involved in the study think the advertising of unhealthy industries they see on social media should be reduced and regulated. The participants described the targeted social media advertising using opaque algorithms as “manipulative”, “creepy”, and “annoying”. They also had many ideas on how this regulation should work, both on the industry and platform ends.

      With things like gambling, I personally don’t think individuals under the age of 25 when your brain is still developing should be advertised gambling services as it forms unhealthy and hard to break habits that could follow you for the rest of your life, so I would prevent advertising of gambling, alcohol and fast food to people under 25. ” (Russell, 17, male,)

      • The volume of advertisements was concentrated among a small number of multinational  corporate  advertisers with operations in Australia, particularly in the unhealthy food, home delivery and alcohol categories, with 5% of all advertisers (n=48) accounting for 50% of all advertisements.

      I don’t think you should be allowed to advertise unhealthy food, drinks, alcohol or gambling all together. It is normalising unhealthy habits.” (Darcie, 20, female)

      • The study found that young people under the age of 18 are being exposed to alcohol and gambling campaigns on social media. There were 54 participants in the study aged 16-17 and 67% of them were targeted with alcohol ads and 22% with gambling ads.
      • The study also revealed that interactive buttons are now central to harmful industries’ advertising, with more and more ads on social media 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.

      Gambling ads should be banned, they’re an absolute net negative for society and my wallet.” (Ash, 21, male, Melbourne)

      Mock up ads

      Mock up ads

      *These mocked-up screenshots demonstrate how ‘call to action’ buttons are used by harmful industries. These are not real advertisements.

  • Research method

    In this project 204 young Victorians were engaged to examine the promotion of alcohol, unhealthy food, sugary drinks, and gambling on social media. The citizen scientist participants were recruited from six targeted research participant recruitment campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. This multi-step approach ensured a diverse group of participants were recruited into the study. The citizen scientist participants worked with the researchers to collect 5,169 examples of advertising they saw on their own social media feeds over a two-week period. In addition to the collection of visual data, citizen scientists completed two surveys on their views and perceptions of unhealthy marketing on social media before and after the collection of screenshots and were invited to download and share information Facebook created about them in its advertising model. They also offered insights and self-reflections on the data they were collecting via online chat and discussion forums.  

  • Next steps

    This research shows the targeted and relentless bombardment of harmful product marketing to young people and young adults through digital channels that is uniquely difficult for public or regulator scrutiny.  

    Digital marketing and the targeted methods used 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.

    Young Victorians helped us observe marketing that platforms and advertisers hide. They helped us provide accountability that the platforms and industry fail to allow. This project has reinforced that young Victorians want better regulation. It has engaged young people as advocates for change. 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. 


Have more questions about the research? Get in touch with our research team here

*Digital marketing is defined as promotional activity, delivered through a digital medium that seeks to increase impact. 

*Harmful industries is defined as industries that produce, sell and promote products that are harmful to health and wellbeing. 

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.