Technology is a ubiquitous feature of our present-day lifestyles.

Rather than potential stagnation of society, science and technology have vastly improved our lifestyles. However, advancements have become a precursor of behavioural change, especially when accounting for how engrossed we are in technology.

In an earlier post, Turn Off the Damn TV, I discussed how technology/media has partially contributed to an increase in sedentary lifestyles and subsequent changes in dietary behaviour. Yet, media’s relationship with behaviour is vastly more complex.

To begin, take a moment and think of some movies and/or TV shows you’ve watched (regardless of format), including your childhood favourites (let’s get a little nostalgic up in here!). In retrospect, considering the fine line between content and marketing, how often could you highlight both blatant or subtle food and beverage product placement?

Although policy makers are aware of the somewhat long-standing issue with advertising and marketing through broadcast media (especially children’s television programming), the expansion of digital media presents a rapidly growing challenge. Recently, a variety of composite strategies focused towards improving dietary behaviours have targeted the marketing and advertising of unhealthy food and drink as a variable of considerable importance. In particular, the emphasis has been towards significantly reduced opportunity but is this a satisfactory, unequivocal approach?

With aspirations to restrict marketing and advertising, a current major focal point (in the UK) appears to be a “9pm watershed.” However, based on the lax nature of current regulatory measures, an explicit multifactorial approach seems imperative. Generally, current regulation is reliant on voluntary efforts from food and beverage companies – this includes inconsistent company-led pledges to change marketing activities directed at children. Comparison of different company pledges and statements show inconsistency in terms of the media formats included, the age of children, the proportion of children in the audience, and especially the types of foods which would and would not be restricted (Galbraith-Emami & Lobstein 2013).

. . .Maybe I’m being cynical but doesn’t such a clear absence of standardisation seem to condone strategic ambiguity?

In the UK, self-regulatory efforts are supported by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), providing a broadcast and non-broadcast advertising code. However, considering the growing concerns that food advertising is contributing to the obesity epidemic – regardless of the industry-sponsored reports indicating remarkable levels of compliance and subsequent restriction of exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods – this is seemingly insufficient. Furthermore, unlike the comprehensive approach made by the CAP, statute measures (that have appeared to be successful in restricting the advertising of specified food and beverages) are limited and largely restricted to TV advertising (Galbraith-Emami & Lobstein 2013), thus ignoring alternative media formats.

Although TV remains the key avenue through which food marketing reaches consumers – utilising promotional techniques such as premium offers, promotional characters, health and nutrition claims, and appeals to taste and fun (Jenkin et al. 2014; Hebden et al. 2010) – trends in online advertising expenditure have shown a dramatic increase e.g. in the UK, online advertising expenditure (for all goods and services, including food and beverage products) was reported to have exceeded expenditure on television advertising for the first in early 2009 (Galbraith-Emami & Lobstein 2013).

Online advertising includes the likes of advertising within search engines and “pop up” adverts (unless you’ve been sensible and installed Adblock) but it’s social media that has experienced a concerning, rapid increase in exploitation with ad spending expected to hit $24 billion this year! Worryingly, advertising on social media is a concern for both children and adults; although social media sites often require users to declare their age as being over 13 years this is proven to be a futile measure in preventing access to younger children (Galbraith-Emami & Lobstein 2013).

Food and beverage companies play a prominent role in the digital marketing arena, developing interactive advertising campaigns, many of which are tailored specifically to adolescents and youth (Montgomery & Chester 2009); just a couple weeks ago my own Twitter feed was littered with promotions from Coca-Cola. Major brands – including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC – are employing a panoply of digital marketing practices across a variety of platforms – social networks, videogames, mobile services, online video and instant messaging, and, unlike TV advertising and physical brand promotion, such marketing can be highly personalised and immersive (Cheyne et al. 2013; Montgomery & Chester 2009).

The manner in which technology has absorbed our near-constant attention has enabled the feature of “ubiquitous connectivity” which, combined with the likes of data collection via cookies, has facilitated the marketing strategy of behavioural targeting: creating personalised marketing and sales appeals based on a customer’s unique preferences, behaviours and psychological profile. Millennials in particular are shown to be more receptive to advertising that is tailored to their specific needs and inserted into these media experiences and it’s probably reasonable to assume such behaviour will continue for future generations. However, besides personalisation and catering to the individual, social media also employ the use of “super-influential” individuals to advertise products – a marketing technique which can presumably exploit numerous loopholes in current attempts at regulation. Such individuals (I’m sure there’s probably some hot instagram model out there who “loves” their Mountain Dew) are understood to have a profound network effect on marketing through their ability to influence friends and family via word-of-mouth, viral video and other applications such as blogs (Montgomery & Chester 2009) — in that case, here’s my non-super-influential plug: “Thirsty? Drink some fucking tap water #QuenchYourThirstHealthily.”

Perhaps most impressive among the abundance of digital marketing techniques is the implementation of in-game advertising. Through “dynamic product placement,” ads can be incorporated into a game’s storyline – blurring the boundary between content and marketing while encouraging consumption of foods and beverages. For example, Sony partnered with Pizza Hut to build into its “Everquest II” videogame the ability to order pizza. When players type a command for “pizza,” Pizza Hut’s online order page appears (Montgomery & Chester 2009); a marketing technique that is a far more imposing and sophisticated than TV ads.

Unfortunately, evidence of such influential advertising suggests major flaws with self-regulation: according to the CAP, online marketing is subject to a broad range of restrictions designed to safeguard children against potential harms (the specificity towards children being an issue itself as regulation neglects the influence of advertising on adolescents and parents – the latter of who influence their children’s diet through their critical roles as food providers and modellers of food consumption) (Pettigrew et al. 2013); advergames, websites and social media are governed by the same rules on food and soft drink ads that have been applied to non-broadcast media for many years and appear to be similarly lacking in improvement.

Furthermore, self-regulation does not generally include retail displays and in-store promotion, product design and formulation, or product labelling and packaging (Galbraith-Emami & Lobstein 2013). Consequently, of particular concern is the use of licensed characters and tie-in characters from TV shows and movies on product packaging. The CAP non-broadcast code vaguely mentions this, stating that “licensed characters and celebrities popular with children must be used with a due sense of responsibility” – which appears highly open to the individual’s interpretation.

A plethora of brand mascots and media characters are used to promote foods to children. Children develop “parasocial relationships” with their favourite characters, enabling companies to use these to build an emotional relationship and cultivate brand loyalty for products that persists into adulthood (Kraak & Story 2015). The relationship between brand mascots and media characters is further complicated by imagery details. In a recent study, children tended to perceive egg-shaped characters as overweight and as such, these characters influenced children to eat more unhealthy food. If used responsibly, this relationship could be beneficial in promoting healthy eating behaviours. However, there’s potential for deceit: the Kellogg’s brand is an example of a company that change the image of one of its cartoon characters, revamping Tony the Tiger as slimmer and more athletic (Margaret et al. 2015). The author of the present study suggests this may link the character with healthier eating ideas rather than exacerbating a linkage to ideas of eating lots of sugary cereals, but would this not potentially lead to the perception that sugary cereals are a healthy product?

Indeed, clear, concise and extensive regulation appears essential for radical change. However, many of the aforementioned marketing strategies could be manipulated to promote positive behavioural change. Essentially adhering to the idiom, fight fire with fire. Specifically, recent research has found that Elmo branding (or cartoon characters in general) can significantly increase children’s fruit and vegetable intake (even in comparison with Elmo branding of a cookie) (Kraak & Story 2015; Kersting et al. 2015). Thus, if applied in a pragmatic manner, supplementing regulation, media characters could be used as a fundamental technique to promote healthy eating* and form the basis of a combative approach to diminishing unhealthy dietary habits; “turning something slightly dull into something very exciting.”

* This does not signify the promotion of “free-from” food products which have already diluted the meaning of healthy eating (University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; The George Institute of Global Health).