Digital Junk: Food and Beverage Marketing on Facebook

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.

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14 thoughts on “Digital Junk: Food and Beverage Marketing on Facebook

  1. Aishwarya Gunti April 23, 2016 / 2:22 pm

    Great work Cami! While I was reading the article I realized similarity in marketing among food brands and accessory brands. Luxurious brands like Rolex, Ferrari, etc. do not market themselves vigorously in social media. After looking at the larger picture, I personally feel that healthy food because of its lack of accessibility and affordability is considered a rarity, and thus luxury requiring minimum marketing targeting only high income families. Neither does the whole foods promote itself at such an extent nor any other healthy food retailers.

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    • Tyler Finigan May 6, 2016 / 12:00 am

      You bring up a great point, Aish. I never really noticed that before until reading your comment. You see so many ads for Coke and Pepsi compared to that of water. I think the only ad I’ve seen promoting the drinking of water is for those Brita filters. Burger King and McDonalds are constantly coming up with new advertisements to compete against one another and to get more consumers, even though over consumption of their foods is very unhealthy. Luxury brands rarely spend in marketing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a commercial or ad for Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc. People know the high quality of those luxury brands, regardless of the brand’s social media marketing.

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  2. Colleen Flynn April 24, 2016 / 12:14 am

    The results of this study are amazing, yet not very surprising to me. It is no surprise that there is a high rate of obesity in our country along with Austrailia. In addition, it is no surprise that marketers of EDNP brands are turning to Facebook to reach to their target market. I personally can testify to the fact that every time I go on Facebook, I am displayed with some sort of post that is shared about food. I can also admit that I always say to myself, “oh that looks so good, I wish I could eat that right now!” when I like a post. I was amazed at the part of the article that claimed, “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.” That is amazing. Social media is on the rise for marketing and it clearly seems to be working!

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    • cbernard7778 May 7, 2016 / 2:24 am

      Awesome point colleen! I personally can relate to liking a food post on Facebook and thinking that it would be fun to try or test out. I also agree with Aishwarya on the accessibility of better quality food and marketing. Both of you mentioned how pricy food usually tends to be healthier, and much like ferraris and mercedes, the marketing is limited. These types of markets tend to extend to specific niches and don’t do a lot of aggressive marketing on social media. It seems that if this type of food was advertised more, the accessibility would change as well. Our biggest hope is that obesity would decrease as a result

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  3. Olivia Sullivan April 25, 2016 / 4:37 pm

    The results of this research is not surprising to me either. Whenever I go on Facebook there are food videos or even ads on the side about McDonalds. The rate of obesity is the way it is because fast food is cheap and healthy food is expensive. It is also a lot easier to get unhealthy food because of all the fast food places everywhere.

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  4. Hechuan Lou April 26, 2016 / 9:22 pm

    It’ s really a good article. I never noticed this before but I do saw a lot of food videos on Facebook. It not because social media make those junk food become more and ore popular, it’s because they are welcomed by people due to the low cost and taste good. However, social media help those junk food advertisement delivered to more consumers and attracted them to buy more.

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  5. Ronald Zampanti April 27, 2016 / 2:13 am

    Marketers of EDNP brands are smart to use the social media platform, Facebook, in order to reach their target audience. Associating positive and fun events with EDNP brands in order to make consumers more likely to recommend and prefer the brands was a good move by these marketers. Creating positive emotions in relation to the products among consumers is a great way to generate sales.

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  6. Andie-Jane Phinney April 27, 2016 / 12:40 pm

    I found this article very interesting, especially the statistics. Facebook does a great job on advertising junk food, and though it is bad for health reasons, it is great for the companies and marketers. Not only Facebook, but even other social media platforms such as Instagram, twitter and even snap chat have become popular with food ads. Food is an essential that everybody needs in order to live. But junk food is something people find joy and happiness in, and marketing through social media, which billions of people are on, is a great idea.

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    • Alicia May 3, 2016 / 6:36 pm

      I was not surprised about the obesity in the United States, however I was a little surprised about the obesity level in Australia. You can find food advertisements on all social media platforms. Personally, I love food and to cook so I follow several food accounts on my social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and even Youtube all have channels or profiles dedicated to food. I also think that, even though Facebook does advertise for many unhealthy food companies/brands, it is more the consumer’s fault for giving into it. If you know food is unhealthy or that there are better options for your body then you are the only one to blame for continuing to eat it. If people were more educated on having a healthy and nutritious lifestyle, then it would result in junk food ads being far less popular.

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  7. guskiewiczv May 5, 2016 / 3:38 pm

    Nice work on this Cami, you presented a great article and your blog post clearly represents major themes and concepts, and ties nicely into marketing concepts we’ve learned about in our marketing class. In our health science classes we have learned time and time again the high prevalence of obesity in our society, and the current epidemic that is currently affecting our nation. I think that it is not surprising companies are utilizing Facebook to generate content around unhealthy food, social media is an easy platform to use to reach a large audience of people and quickly spread word of mouth. I agree with Alicia in that if people were more educated on having a healthy nutritious lifestyle and the importance of diet to your health, it would result in unhealthy food being much less popular. Clearly the power of social media to impact consumer decision making and sales is a powerful force.

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  8. CJ Enos May 6, 2016 / 8:31 pm

    This was a great article and really sheds some light on what people view on social media and how it impacts their decision on what they buy and eat. I personally see more ads for snack box and blue apron in my feed, but I think that is because I subscribe to a lot of nutrition feeds and running feeds. If I see an add in my feed for junk I hide it. I also very rarely view Facebook on my laptop so I don’t see the side bar ads as much. I do think the promotion of a lot of these unhealthy products is reaching a much larger consumer base with social media. And having well known Hollywood stars or athletes making these product look more glamorous does not help out in any way with getting consumers to choose a healthier option.

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  9. Derek Lawton May 7, 2016 / 12:34 am

    The results of this study are amazing. I did not know many of these things but was not surprised with the rate of obesity in our country. Whenever I see food ads on Facebook I am likely to want to go out and get that food. This is a great marketing tool and I think it will go far in the future.

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  10. Jessica May 12, 2016 / 7:36 pm

    I am constantly seeing energy dense but nutrient poor foods posted on Instagram. Even all the “tea’s and diet fads” If people have low health literacy ( as we’ve learned many times in our program) They will fall for the marketing tactics. Consumers will not be able to understand what is nutritionally beneficial for them and what is an unhealthy quick fix. This was a great article and i am sure an eye opener for many. Great Job!

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  11. gabriellepecher May 12, 2016 / 8:53 pm

    Cami I loved your presentation – I thought it was very insightful! Your presentation brought a lot of thoughts to mind, especially the controversy surrounding the labeling and marketing of not only unhealthy foods, but also healthy foods. It seems like every package now is labeled as Gluten free, Non GMO, free of all natural, no artificial ingredients or preservatives, and the list goes on. With some much advertising around this and the money that would go into to ensure these things, makes me wonder how much of this labeling is actually true and how much is false advertising.

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