Junk food advertising tactics revealed

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 11 July 2024
Source: Change.org.

Sports-washing, mental-health-washing and online delivery cross-promotions are the new marketing tactics junk food brands are using to advertise unhealthy foods, researchers have found.

As a result, a strong ban, without age-restriction, of unhealthy food online ads is recommended as men between 18-24 were the most targeted demographic.

Research into Facebook ads by Melbourne Law School and the Australian Ad Observatory found problematic patterns including co-promotion with sports, gamification, social cause and online delivery companies.

These marketing strategies were labelled as sports-washing, which links unhealthy food with sports activity, and mental-health-washing, which associates sweet treats and drinks with community mental health organisations.

The study included 1703 unhealthy food and drink ads from 79 brands and 141 advertisers, in the 12 months until December 2023.

KFC, McDonald's, Cadbury, Coles and 7-Eleven were the most prominent brands featured and made up 45% of the data set.

Illustrations of key themes in ads placed by the top four advertisers in the dataset.

Illustrations of key themes in ads placed by the top four advertisers in the dataset.

Sport themes

Despite the low nutritional value of certain products, ads placed by major sports broadcasters and clubs cross-promoted unhealthy food brands.

Sports in unhealthy food marketing can appeal to a broad audience, including young people, and can be used to provide the focal point of an ad that retains strong brand-specific elements, but does not promote or display any unhealthy food products.

The Australian Football League (AFL), a popular competition in Australia, was especially prominent.

For example, the FOX Sports TV Network offered a $250 McDonald’s voucher for the best comment posted to an ad about the latest AFL round; and, the Essendon [AFL] Football Club offered a draw for tickets for a President’s Club Function to those who bought Coca-Cola at the upcoming game. 

The UK has committed to ban junk food advertising aimed at children, which the country has pushed back until October 2025.

Mental health themes

Numerous ads in the study harnessed social cause marketing.

Including green claims, such as Cadbury ads that prominently displayed the ‘sustainable cocoa’ claim, 7-Eleven’s ‘fairtrade certified’ coffee in recyclable ‘packaging made with plants’ and ‘RSPCA approved chicken’.

A Doritos ad in the same session used mental health concerns, another frequent theme, to promote unhealthy food in partnership with ReachOut, an online mental health service for young people.

Similarly, McCafe promoted a 20c donation to a not-for-profit social enterprise mental health and well-being charity for young people for every coffee purchase.

Online food delivery companies

While online food delivery companies, such as supermarkets (like Coles), convenience stores (like 7-Eleven) and online delivery food companies (like Uber Eats), are not a category of unhealthy foods themselves they were found to cross-promote unhealthy food products.

While previous research has suggested that online companies may create opportunities for healthier choices than in-store shopping, this study found examples of a dominant Australian supermarket, Coles, promoting unhealthy food, and unhealthy food brands promoting another dominant Australian supermarket, Woolworths.

The delivery companies also use sports to promote unhealthy foods and incentivise special deals tied to an upcoming game, like KFC’s ad for free delivery of a ‘Friday night footy feast’. 

A ban of unhealthy food online ads should be worded broadly enough to capture all promotions of unhealthy food online, no matter the advertiser.

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