In an analysis of content posted on the TikTok accounts of 16 of the world’s top-selling food and non-alcoholic beverage brands, researchers from the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT)’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) found that companies are using a range of marketing strategies that directly appeal to children, including promoting hashtag challenges that encourage users to create and share videos featuring their branding and products.

Doritos, for example, created a hashtag challenge calling for users to create and share videos of themselves eating one of their products, while McDonald’s asked users to record themselves singing alongside a video featuring images of a McDonald’s product.

The research found that the videos created and shared by TikTok users in response to such challenges overwhelmingly featured the companies’ branding and products, portrayed a positive sentiment and were viewed billions of times.

Videos related to a single hashtag challenge started by Pepsi, for example, collectively received 107.9 billion views.

Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer said that by encouraging TikTok users to respond to hashtag challenges and create and share content featuring companies’ branding and products, TikTok has turned users into active participants in the marketing of junk food.

“This is an incredibly insidious strategy by TikTok and junk food marketing companies,” Associate Professor Backholer said.

“TikTok’s own website describes these challenges as an opportunity for companies to turn TikTok users into their ‘unofficial brand ambassadors’ and we know that many TikTok users are children.”

The study is the first to look at the way junk food companies market their products using TikTok, a platform that currently has more than a billion monthly users.

Lead author, Ruby Brooks, an Associate Research Fellow at GLOBE, a designated World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, said while junk food companies benefit from this marketing, users receive little to no reward and expose other users to even more junk food marketing.

“We know that food marketing influences kids’ food preferences, purchasing, requests, and consumption,” Ms Brooks said.

Other marketing strategies used by junk food companies on TikTok included the use of celebrities or influencers and sportspeople. McDonald’s, for example, used the K-pop band BTS to promote the “BTS Meal” (which included a sauce with packaging that could be used to “unlock” a branded effect featuring the band on TikTok) and to promote “BTS x McDonald’s Collaboration Merch”, while Pepsi featured multiple professional soccer players, including Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba, drinking its products.

“Strong government-led policies to protect children from the harmful impact of unhealthy food marketing are urgently needed. This is about putting our children’s health before industry profits,” Associate Professor Backholer said.

The GLOBE research team, working with Deakin’s Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) have been looking at other concerning tactics used by food companies, including their use of artificial intelligence to influence customers’ behaviour.

“By looking at company documents, we found that, companies are using facial recognition to estimate customers’ age, sex and mood to tailor foods that are shown back to customers on menu boards,” Ms Brooks said.

“These companies predominantly sell unhealthy foods and the use of tactics like these is likely to drive increased selection and consumption of these foods.”

“Our study highlights the need for greater scrutiny of  the actions of big food companies, but also of the big technology companies that work with food companies.” Associate Professor Backholer said.

Associate Professor Backholer said the Ian Potter Foundation had provided research funding to further investigate harmful digital advertising to children and youth and this would allow her to unpack exactly how much harmful advertising children and youth see online and how they engage with that advertising.

Learn more in this episode of IHT’s podcast, Healing Health, where Kathryn and Ruby delve further into their research on junk food advertising.