By: Camila Pachon Posada
This study focused on investigating how energy-dense, nutrient-poor (EDNP) food and beverages are being marketed in online social media channels. EDNP food and beverages are high in calories but low in nutritional value. In the United States alone, the medical costs of obesity are estimated to be $147 billion. Although the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents in countries such as the United States and Australia appears to have plateaued in recent years, rates remain high. One-third (35.5%) of Australians aged 15 to 24 years are considered overweight or obese.
One of the powerful environmental factors influencing the rise in obesity is the ubiquitous presence of food and beverage marketing. The food and beverage industry is increasingly targeting young people aged 15 to 24 years. These young people spend an average of $180 per week on food and non-alcoholic drinks and most (85%) use the internet for social networking or gaming. So it’s not surprising marketers are placing a firm grip on Facebook.
Facebook is the most popular social networking site in the world. As of September 30, 2013, 1.19 billion users accessed the site at least monthly and 727 million users accessed the site daily. This study ranked the top 250 Facebook pages on the basis of the total number of Australian Facebook users who had liked the page, using data from the social media monitoring site Socialbakers. The study excluded any pages that did not represent food and beverage products or companies and included food manufacturers, food brands, retailers, and foodservice providers such as restaurants. Alcohol brands were excluded because these Facebook pages only allow members who state they are of legal purchase age to join. After this process, 33 pages that had a connection to food and beverage brands remained. Several more exclusions resulted in a final sample of 27 food and beverage brand pages.
Data collection was done through a content analysis coding tool developed by the researchers to categorize the marketing techniques used by the brands. Researchers assessed each piece of content posted with respect to what type of marketing technique was being used; for example, was a celebrity included, were users being offered an incentive or prize, or was the company promoting its own socially responsible behavior?
In terms of age groups, pages were most commonly liked by those aged 18 to 24 years. Although some of the fast food restaurants included in the sample do offer healthy options, observational studies have indicated that regular, less nutritionally beneficial, menu items made up the bulk of food sales in these outlets. The study found that pages widely used social media marketing features that increase consumer interaction and engagement, such as competitions based on user-generated content, interactive games and apps.
The most popular Facebook food and beverage brand page in Australia was Bubble O’Bill Ice Cream. Bubble O’Bill Ice Cream was exceptional in that the page responded to virtually every post made by others to its timeline and engaged with post comments daily, which may explain why it was the most popular page.
All pages included photographs and branding elements, such as logos, trademarks, slogans, and brand colors. Of the 27 pages, 17 highlighted their philanthropy or corporate social responsibility activities and 21 included content that showcased their sponsorship of events or partnerships with other brands, companies, or services. The majority of brand pages used celebrities, licensed characters popular with children, and sportspeople to promote their products. Nearly half of all pages, including the most popular, Bubble O’Bill, included a branded character created by the company to promote its products.
A typical example of User-Generated Content (UGC) is a consumer taking a photo of the product or of themselves eating or drinking the product and tagging the brand page in the photo. The page can then, in turn, share the photo with all followers on the page so that the image reaches well beyond the social network of the user. This is the strongest, most effective marketing techniques evaluated.
The following statement identifies the successful marketing tactics supported by the study. EDNP brands are using the interactive and social aspects of Facebook to market their products. The reach of social media marketing messages should be assessed not just in terms of audience engagement but also in total audience exposure. With pages posting new content on average approximately every 2 days, and some pages posting multiple times a day, combined with the daily log-in habits of Facebook users, the reach of marketing messages quickly amplifies. This study shows that users require very little incentive to openly interact with EDNP food brands. The prizes offered by the brands in the study were generally of low monetary value, but some did provide users with the opportunity to be a featured page member or fan of the week. This suggests that increasing the visibility of users on social media among their peers—or fellow consumers—is a distinctive social media marketing tactic.
There are several important take-aways from this study. Of particular note is the popularity of the sugar-sweetened soda and energy drink pages. Increased consumption of these beverages is an established contributor to rising levels of obesity. People who experienced strong positive emotions while viewing Facebook page content for food and beverage brands were 3.25 times more likely to claim that they would recommend the brands and 2.5 times more likely to prefer the brands. Facebook pages evaluated were quick to align themselves with positive, fun events such as Australia Day and the Super Bowl. This indicates the importance of a light and inviting attitude required when marketing through social media, especially with the target audience identified in this particular study.
Freeman, Becky, Bridget Kelly, Louise Baur, Kathy Chapman, Simon Chapman, Tim Gill, and Lesley King. “Digital Junk: Food and Beverage Marketing on Facebook.” Am J Public Health American Journal of Public Health 104.12 (2014). Web.