Junk Food Brands Encourage TikTokkers to Market Products for Them, Researchers Say

Junk food brands are encouraging TikTok users to market their products for them, according to a new report.

Health food experts say that, given the video hosting service's popularity with children, policies are needed to protect them.

Researchers found that unhealthy food and drink brands are encouraging TikTok users to market their products for them - effectively turning them into "brand ambassadors" -as well as using their own accounts for promotional activity.

Shake Shack burger and fries
In this photo illustration, a cheeseburger and french fries are served at a Shake Shack restaurant on January 28, 2015, in Chicago. Junk food brands are encouraging TikTok users to market their products for them, according to a new report. Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

They assessed video content posted on the social media platform. Their findings were published by BMJ Global Health.

The researchers said that children are exposed to a "vast amount" of unhealthy — high in salt, sugar, and fat — food marketing online.

And the evidence shows that such exposure ultimately influences food preferences, buying, requests and consumption.

TikTok users create, post, watch and engage with short videos. Since its global release, TikTok's popularity has rapidly increased: its global monthly active users reportedly rose from 55 million in January 2018 to 1 billion in September 2021.

It is very popular with children: More than a third of its daily users in the U.S. are reportedly 14 or younger.

However, no study to date has looked at the impact of unhealthy food marketing on TikTok, despite calls for attention to be paid to the health implications of the platform.

The researchers assessed the content of all videos posted on the accounts of 16 leading food and non-alcoholic drink brands, based on global brand share.

The content and sentiment of a sample of relevant user-generated content, created in response to branded hashtag challenges instigated by these brands, was also assessed.

A total of 539 videos had been posted on the 16 included accounts, with 3 percent posted in 2019, 37 percent in 2020, and 60 percent in the first six months of 2021. Four accounts had not posted any videos.

The number of followers of the included accounts ranged from 14 to 1.6 million. Videos received an average of 63,400 views, 5,829 likes, 157 comments and 36 shares per video.

The most common marketing strategies were branding (87 percent of videos), product images (85 percent), engagement (31 percent), and celebrities/influencers (25 percent).

TikTok app is seen on iPhone
In this photo illustration, the TikTok app is displayed on an Apple iPhone on November 1, 2019, in San Anselmo, California. TikTok users create, post, watch and engage with short videos. Since its global release, TikTok’s popularity has rapidly increased: its global monthly active users reportedly rose from 55 million in January 2018 to 1 billion in September 2021. Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Engagement included the instigation of branded hashtag challenges that encouraged creation of user-generated content featuring brands' products, videos, and/or branded effects, such as stickers, filters, or special effects featuring branding.

The total collective views of user-generated content from single challenges ranged from 12.7 million to 107.9 billion.

Among a sample of 626 brand-relevant videos generated in response to these challenges, 96 percent featured branding, 68 percent product images, and 41 percent branded effects.

Most portrayed a positive (73 percent) or neutral/unclear (25 percent) sentiment, with only three per cent portraying a negative sentiment.

"Brand activity has rapidly increased - with most videos posted in the six months preceding data collection - and includes instigation of branded hashtag challenges that encourage user-generated content featuring brand products, brand-supplied videos or branded effects," said study co-author Dr. Kathryn Backholer.

"Analysis of a sample of brand-relevant user-generated content created in response to these showed that branded hashtag challenges are effectively turning users into, in TikTok's words, 'unofficial brand ambassadors'."

She said that while fewer videos were posted by users who seem to have been paid - such as influencers, these attracted nearly 10 times as many likes per video, on average, as those seemingly not paid for, and are therefore likely important in propagating branded hashtag challenges.

Backholer, of the Global Obesity Center at Deakin University in Australia, said: "The substantial reach of influencer marketing is concerning given that exposure to influencer marketing of unhealthy foods has been shown to increase energy intake - from unhealthy foods and overall."

The research team highlighted that proposed U.K. legislation will ban all "paid-for" online marketing of "less healthy food and drink" beginning in January of next year.

But it includes an exemption for brand-only advertising, and excludes marketing originating outside the U.K., despite the fact that social networking platforms frequently operate across international borders.

Backholer added: "Our study has shown that TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing, including that created by users at the instigation of brands.

"Given TikTok's popularity among children, our findings support the need for policies that protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing, including that on social networking platforms.

"TikTok's rising popularity also calls for further research into its potential impact on public health and its role as a corporate political actor."

Produced in association with SWNS.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.