Brands Using TikTok Influencers to Market Unhealthy Food to Children, Study Shows

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With the rising popularity of social media platforms, businesses have also learnt to tap into the massive reach that these websites and applications offer. Now, research suggests that brands are using TikTok users to promote their unhealthy food and beverages while turning them into brand ambassadors. The researchers concluded, after analysing the video content posted on TikTok. They highlighted that children using the platform are exposed to a variety of unhealthy food loaded with salt, sugar, and fat through online marketing. The research showed that this exposure impacted the food preferences, consumption, purchasing, and requests of the viewers. 

In the study, published in BMJ Global Health, researchers have stressed that while the platform enjoys significant popularity among children, no research before them tried to examine the impact of unhealthy food marketing on TikTok users.

They began by scanning around 539 instances of video content posted by 16 leading food and non-alcoholic brands on their TikTok accounts. This was based on global brand share as of June 30, 2021. The researchers also assessed the content generated by users in response to the hashtag challenges given by the brands.

As this was an observational study, it is worth noting that it can’t establish causality. The researchers also acknowledged that thesampled user-generated content may not have been representative of a branded hashtag challenge, and they were not able to measure children’s exposure to brands’ promotional activities or to user-generated content.

However, the researchers note that “brand activity has rapidly increased—with most videos posted in the 6 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.”

The most common marketing strategies adopted by these brands, which had followers ranging from 14 million to 1.6 million, were branding videos, product images, engagement, and celebrities and influencers.

The engagement strategy involves amplifying brand hashtag challenges that are aimed at encouraging users to create content featuring products, videos, or branded effects such as stickers, and special filters of the brands. It was observed that the collective views amassed by user-generated content from single challenges ranged between 12.7 million and 107.9 billion. In most of the sample videos, the sentiment was found to be positive.

“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,” the researchers said.

They further underlined that the substantial reach of influencer marketing was alarming as it has been seen that the increased exposure to unhealthy food-related content has led to an increase in energy intake from both junk and other food.


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