EMCR COVID-19 Think Tank: fast food marketing tactics during COVID-19

In April 2020, the Institute for Health Transformation’s EMCR Committee launched its Inaugural Think Tank Competition. Early and Mid-Career researchers were asked to reflect on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for their research disciplines. Their pieces are included in this seven-part series of articles.

Written by Dr Evelyn Looi and Associate Professor Gary Sacks

Monitoring the marketing tactics of fast food companies during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

by Dr Evelyn Suk Yi Looi and Associate Professor Gary Sacks

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have an important impact on population diets. Fast food chains have aggressively promoted their products through various marketing strategies during the pandemic period. Their marketing strategies need to be closely monitored to inform policy action to address unhealthy diets.

 Unhealthy diet is a leading contributor to the burden of disease in Australia (1). The widespread implementation of movement restrictions (isolation and/or ‘lockdown’) and the economic downturn resulting from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have been found to have a detrimental impact on population diets (2).  Drivers of unhealthy diets during the pandemic are likely to include increased financial hardship, stress, increased opportunities for snacking, and greater use of food delivery services (2, 3). The adverse impact on diets is observed (2) despite likely increases in the extent to which people are cooking more meals at home – often cited as a healthier alternative to eating out (4), as well as reduced exposure to marketing of unhealthy food products through billboard advertising, such as at train stations.

Fast food chains, such as McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, like many other companies, have attempted to use the COVID-19 pandemic to their advantage by aggressively promoting their products and brands through various marketing strategies, including price promotion to encourage increased purchases, attractive taglines, and product promotion for healthcare workers to create a positive brand image. See Figure 1 for examples of fast food chains’ advertisements on social media platforms during the early stages of the pandemic in Australia.

Due to many of their products being unhealthy, the pervasive marketing strategies adopted by fast food chains are concerning to public health, particularly in times of crisis. Therefore, increased monitoring of the marketing strategies used by fast food chains and their impact on population diets is urgently needed. Moreover, as part of recovery efforts, it is critical that greater efforts are taken to restrict the exposure of the population, and particularly children, to the marketing of unhealthy food across multiple channels, including on social media, through price promotions, and advertising on television and in outdoor settings.

References:

  1. Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. Obesity and healthy eating in Australia: Evidence summary: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation; 2016 
  2. Heart Foundation. Diet for one in three Australians is ‘worse’ in lockdown: new survey: Heart Foundation; 2020 [cited 17 May 2020 ]. 
  3. Sinha R, Jastreboff AM. Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction. Biological psychiatry. 2013;73(9):827-35.
  4. Monsivais P, Aggarwal A, Drewnowski A. Time spent on home food preparation and indicators of healthy eating. American journal of preventive medicine. 2014;47(6):796-802.

 

Author profiles:

Dr Evelyn Looi is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Health Transformation’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) at Deakin University. Her research interests include food policy, local and international efforts in monitoring the healthiness of food environments, as well as capacity and capability building in obesity prevention and health promotion.

 

 

Associate Professor Gary Sacks is a Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at GLOBE and an Australian Institute of Policy and Science 2020 Victorian Young Tall Poppy. Gary’s research focuses on policies for the prevention of obesity and related diseases.