Are Junk Food Companies Using TikTok Influencers to Target Kids? | Civil Eats

Are Junk Food Companies Using TikTok Influencers to Target Kids?

The biggest stars on the social media platform are reaching new audiences—especially young people—with marketing help from fast food companies.

Charli D'Amelio promoting Dunkin drinks

When today’s teenagers choose afterschool snacks, they’re probably listening more closely to Charli D’Amelio than their parents. That’s because the 16-year-old dancer-turned-TikTok-star is the social media platform’s most-followed person with more than 108 million followers—and 32 percent of the social media platform’s users are between the ages of 10 and 19.

So when D’Amelio partnered with Dunkin’ recently to develop and advertise a drink called “The Charli”—cold brew coffee with whole milk and three pumps of caramel swirl—she clearly had young people’s attention.

“While all child-directed food marketing is troubling, social media marketing is particularly insidious—the marketing is so seamlessly woven into the platform that even older kids and teens may not realize the influencer is being paid to shill the product.”

D’Amelio projects health and energy as she dances and sips but nutrition facts for her eponymous beverage are stunning. A medium Charli has 250 calories and 50 grams of sugar; a large contains 340 calories and 68 grams of sugar. By comparison, the American Heart Association recommends that children ages two to 18 intake less than 25 grams of sugar a day for a healthy heart. When adhering to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommendation of 2,200 to 2,600 calories a day for inactive teen boys and 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day for inactive teen girls, the Charli could easily claim 10–20 percent of the day’s calories, without providing beneficial nutrients, like fiber, vitamins, or minerals.

And at a reputed $100,000 per TikTok post, D’Amelio’s motivation to market her drink to her teen followers is likely driven by more than her own love of caramel.

“While all child-directed food marketing is troubling, social media marketing is particularly insidious,” said Bettina Elias Siegel, author of Kid Food and The Lunch Tray newsletter. “The marketing is so seamlessly woven into the platform that even older kids and teens may not realize the influencer is being paid to shill the product, or that he or she is hoping to catch the attention of a brand for eventual sponsorship.”

The High-Speed Road to Fast Food

Dunkin’ isn’t the only company promoting junk food on TikTok. Wendy’s TikTok presents teens praising their high-calorie, high-fat foods in its videos, and fans of the McDonald’s Travis Scott meal have created viral TikTok videos featuring themselves ordering in “Sicko Mode” at the chain’s drive-through. Arby’s is surprisingly more popular than Burger King on TikTok, with more than 600,000 followers, having taken advantage of a viral video that resulted in a new Arby’s menu item.

Doritos has capitalized both on nostalgia and on the power of TikTok challenges, with their 1998 commercial star Ali Landry challenging creators to catch the snack food in their mouths in daring ways. Numerous smaller brands, including F’Real milkshakes, My Cookie Dough, and Nutter Butter are succeeding in garnering huge audiences and extensive engagement on the platform.

American teens are already facing nutritional deficits and an obesity epidemic. According to various studies, adolescents  fail to meet the majority of dietary recommendations and suffer from increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food, and calorie-dense, nutrient-poor snacks. Tastes formed from childhood through the teenage years often persist into adulthood, cementing preferences for junk food, and resulting in high rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Professor Jennifer L. Harris, the senior research advisor at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, studied the influence of food companies on Black and Latinx children, finding that they are targeted at a higher rate by junk food and fast food than white teens. For context, Black and Latinx teens already possess a higher risk of obesity and obesity-related diseases.

“There is for Black youth higher screen time, and overall, Black youth are exposed to more television,” Harris said. “Hispanic youth are exposed to more digital media.”

Harris performed qualitative research in her study, seeking information about youth awareness in regard to targeting of communities of color. “We wanted to talk to them about targeting and whether it was fair that these companies were targeting them and their neighborhood, which looked so different from suburban neighborhood,” Harris said. “A few of them said, ‘Yeah, that’s not right, but a lot said, ‘Well, the companies are just trying to make money, and I’m not going to blame them for that.’”

Lack of Regulation  

New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines on both print and electronic food marketing to children took effect in 2016, and the agency explicitly urges social media influencers to disclose their affiliation using clear language phrases “advertisement,” “ad,” and “sponsored.” But the guidelines are voluntary, with no accountability for those who don’t follow them. Currently, only two platforms, SnapChat and YouTube Kids, have enacted policies regarding food advertisements. Snapchat’s policy requires accurate descriptions of food characteristics, while YouTube Kids prohibits food advertising entirely.

Some advertising experts don’t think disclosure is enough.

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“There is a significant body of research showing that children are more vulnerable to advertising when it is integrated into content. The fact that children who spend hours a day on YouTube and TikTok feel like they have relationships with influencers makes these junk food pitches even more powerful,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in a recent email exchange. He also sees disclosures such as an #ad hashtag as meaningless to children. “The FTC should instead prohibit influencer marketing aimed at children as an unfair practice,” he said.

“There is a significant body of research showing that children are more vulnerable to advertising when it is integrated into content.”

Researchers and journalists have called for stronger regulations, but the FTC has failed to issue a report on food marketing to children since its 2012 report. In 2014, the FTC told Politico that it had “no plans to continue using their authority” to obtain child marketing data from the 44 largest food and beverage companies in the United States.

The FTC’s lack of oversight is apparent in a 2020 study published in the journal Pediatrics. The study analyzed YouTube kid influencers ages three to 14 years found that, of 179 videos featuring food and/or drinks 291 times, 90 percent were highly processed foods and fast food from brands such as McDonald’s, while only 2 percent were healthier branded items such as Yoplait yogurt. The study concluded that the FTC “should strengthen regulations regarding product placement on YouTube videos featuring young children.”

Part of the regulatory work is playing catch-up to the Internet and social media, where television rules prohibiting actions like “host selling”—or hosts selling products in commercials on their own programs—do not apply. Members of Congress have proposed expanding the proposed Kids Internet Design and Safety Act to go prohibiting just alcohol, tobacco, or nicotine and include foods containing artificial flavors and colors, trans fats, excess sugars per item, high fructose corn syrup, and other processed foods. The struggle is passing such bills in the face of food industry lobbying, which has powerful coffers. The junk food lobbyists are well-funded, determined, and creative. In 2017, soda and fast food lobbyists even used state preemption laws to prevent local governments from enacting soda taxes.

“When companies use billions of dollars to target minors, that’s outrageous to me,” Harris said. “It’s not giving them more choices; it’s affecting their preferences and their behaviors for the rest of their lives. This is a very impressionable age for creating these habits.”

With teens absorbing more screen time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris is concerned that they are also seeing more social media advertisements. Even prior to COVID, her research found that for ages 13 to 17, 70 percent were engaged with one food brand, with 30 percent engaged with five or more brands. The categories the teens engaged with were comprised by half of fast food, sugary foods, snack brands, and soda.

Harris said that because the general public doesn’t view junk food and fast through the same lens as controlled substances, food companies have encountered less regulation. The companies have also been clever about using everyday teens and influencers to cater to their peers—often in hopes of tapping into the emotional attachments formed to peer networks.

“[Teenagers’] peer networks are really the most important thing in their life,” Harris said. “So, it really is taking advantage of the developmental vulnerability of this age group.”

There is No ‘Kale TikTok’

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Health authorities in various countries have struggled to make kale as cool to kids as Doritos; one article semi-joked that the junk food companies were winning because there was no “Kale TikTok.” Some arguably healthier companies like Sabra Hummus have a presence on TikTok, employing platform comedy star Tabitha Brown to garner attention. Unfortunately, initiatives like the Have a Plant Movement, endorsed by Former First Lady Michelle Obama, lack the funding to create a dynamic presence on social media. Food, beverage, and restaurant industry companies, meanwhile, spend $14 billion annually on a variety of advertisements, with fast food restaurants comprising 40 percent of that spending, according to Harris.

Vegan influencers and brands do find traction on the platform, which could promote healthy eating habits—though many vegan influencers, like Zacchary Bird and Emily Daniels, promote vegan junk food or high-sugar desserts.

In the absence of federal regulation, the fight against these ads needs to start with parents’ awareness, Harris said. The pandemic may have made parents, whose teens are home doing distance learning, see how much highly processed food are in their diets.

“Even before COVID, parents had no idea what their kids were seeing on social media, how much advertising there was, and how powerful it was,” Harris said. “Increasing parents’ awareness about this kind of thing, especially for the younger teens who are just starting to get into this, could be powerful.”

Harris suggested that since most teens aren’t motivated by health and nutrition, pointing out the sugar content in The Charli probably wouldn’t make them stop drinking it. Instead, she said, parents could appeal to teens’ sense of being deceived. This tactic would encourage teens to be critical of a social media platform that encourages eating and drinking sugary, processed foods while also expecting them to maintain certain body images and fitness goals that potentially contribute to disordered eating.

“If you could point out the hypocrisy, [ask young people,] ‘Do you really think she drinks these drinks?’” Harris said. “That could be effective.”

Dakota Kim is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, NPR, and elsewhere. Read more >

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