Research shows that children and adolescents are more vulnerable to marketing’s influence than adults. In particular, food and beverage marketing has a tremendous impact on what young people eat and drink, and marketers use this knowledge to reach kids at a young age, potentially shaping their eating habits for life.1,2 Now, with a growing amount of marketing dollars being pumped into digital venues such as social networks, online games, mobile phones, and virtual worlds, fast food, snack and soft drink companies are able to reach kids and teens in more ways and in more places than ever — often without parents knowing. Marketers are increasingly using a sweeping array of manipulative and deceptive digital marketing techniques to target these groups in cutting-edge ways and get them not just to purchase unhealthy products but also to engage with them — to bond with brands on a deeply personal and emotional level.3

At a time when childhood obesity is on the rise — and showing no signs of slowing down — this threat to youth health and wellness is a cause for concern to health professionals, advocates, parents and policy makers. These concerns are heightened for youth of color, who tend to be targeted more aggressively and are at higher risk for obesity than their white counterparts. Digital food and beverage marketing also raises serious issues of privacy and fairness and exposes the need to monitor and report campaigns that violate laws against deceptive marketing practices.

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Creating immersive environments

Food and beverage marketers use immersive online environments including gaming, state-of-the-art animation, high-definition video, and virtual realities to reduce consumers’ conscious attention to marketing techniques and foster impulsive behaviors. This technique creates a three-dimensional experience, surrounding individuals with realistic sounds and images. The goal is to blur the line between the digital and real world and make it hard for users to distinguish between marketing and other content.

Infiltrating social networks

Social networks are among the most popular digital media available to youth. Teens in particular often use platforms such as Facebook to explore their identity and interact with friends. By penetrating social networks, marketers are able to survey and track users’ online conversations and behaviors without their awareness. Marketers then use this information to identify sources of peer influence and even insert themselves into online interactions to sway youth purchasing behavior.

Location-based and mobile marketing

The near-ubiquity of mobile devices and the rise of location-based technologies has given marketers the unprecedented ability to track young people throughout their daily lives. Marketers use mobile messaging, GPS and an array of Internet applications to target and influence consumers. For example, fast food restaurants can deliver coupons to student cell phones, enticing them with offers for free food as they leave school, and soda companies can precisely target neighborhoods where young people are more likely to buy full calorie soft drinks.

Collecting personal data

Data collection is at the core of contemporary digital marketing. This technique allows food and beverage marketers to track user behavior 24/7, often without their knowledge or consent. Powerful analytical software mines data from social media and other online applications, allowing marketers to analyze behavior patterns, create profiles of young users, identify which ones are the most likely to consume unhealthy products, and refine their strategies accordingly.

Studying and triggering the subconscious

In recent years, the advertising industry has drawn from methods typically used by scientists to research, diagnose and treat illnesses and adapted them for marketing purposes. This technique, now known as neuromarketing, taps into consumer emotions to foster brand engagement. Neuromarketing allows marketers to penetrate both the conscious and subconscious mind to better understand the brain’s response to advertising in hopes of circumventing rational decision-making among consumers.


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