Companies selling unhealthy food and drinks are encouraging TikTok users to market their products for them and using their own accounts for promotions, research published in the journal BMJ Global Health has found.
Given TikTok’s popularity with children, the findings emphasise the need for policies to protect youngsters from the harmful effects of this type of marketing, researchers say.
Children are exposed to a vast amount of online marketing of unhealthy foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat, say the researchers
Evidence has found that this exposure ultimately influences food preferences, buying, requests and consumption.
TikTok users create, post, watch and engage with short videos.
Since its global release, the platform's popularity has rapidly increased. Its global monthly active users reportedly rose from 55 million in January 2018 to a billion in September 2021.
More than a third of its daily users in the US are reportedly aged 14 or younger.
No study so far has looked at the effects of unhealthy food marketing on TikTok, despite calls for it, the researchers say.
In a bid to plug this knowledge gap, the researchers assessed the content of all videos posted on the accounts of 16 leading food and non-alcoholic beverage brands, based on global brand share as of June 30, 2021.
Researchers also studied the content and sentiment of a sample of relevant user-generated content that was created in response to branded hashtag challenges instigated by these brands.
About 539 videos had been posted on the 16 accounts, with 3 per cent posted in 2019 (earliest year of posting), 37 per cent in 2020, and 60 per cent in the first six months of 2021.
Four accounts had not posted any videos.
The number of followers of the accounts ranged from 14 to 1.6 million. Videos received an average of 63,400 views, 5829 likes, 157 comments and 36 shares.
The most common marketing strategies were branding (87 per cent of videos), product images (85 per cent), engagement (31 per cent), and celebrities or influencers (25 per cent).
Engagement included introducing 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 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 per cent featured branding, 68 per cent product images, and 41 per cent branded effects.
Most portrayed a positive (73 per cent) or neutral or unclear (25 per cent) sentiment, with few portraying a negative (3 per cent) sentiment.
“Brand activity has rapidly increased,” say researchers.
“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’.”
While fewer videos were posted by users who seem to have been paid (influencers, for example), these attracted nearly 10 times as many likes a video, on average, as those seemingly not paid for.
“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 researchers say.
The UK is proposing new legislation that will ban all "paid-for" online marketing of "less healthy food and drink" from January 2023.
But this includes an exemption for brand-only advertising, and excludes marketing coming outside the UK, despite the fact that social-networking platforms frequently operate across international borders.
“Our study has shown that TikTok is an emerging source of unhealthy food marketing, including that created by users at the instigation of brands,” the researchers say.
“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.”