May 6, 2024

Research project uncovers stealthy world of digital food marketing to teens

Arts prof Charlene Elliott illuminates its impact on youth health
A row of teenagers sitting and scrolling on their phones.
monkeybusinessimages (Getty Images)

In our digital age, teens frequently encounter food marketing through TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms. Dr. Charlene Elliott, PhD, a professor with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Arts, and a UCalgary alum, is leading a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)-funded project to uncover how food marketers are trying to appeal to teen audiences.

Elliott and her research team have developed an app titled GrabFM! (Grab Food Marketing) that allows teenagers to capture examples of teen-targeted food marketing they come across. Teens participating in the study use the app for a week, uploading all examples of teen-targeted food advertising they encounter, including the product advertised, the platform it was on and what was appealing within the ad.

Screenshot of the GrabFM app on the App Store.

GrabFM! app.

“We know that young people are relentlessly targeted by marketing for unhealthy food brands and products but with the rise of digital platforms, it is especially difficult to gauge the extent of the problem,” says Elliott, who is with the Department of Communication, Media and Film.

“By engaging teenagers in the research process, we get unique insight into the food marketing they see and what teens find persuasive within the specific ads that target them.” 

For many years, the primary research focus was on food marketing to children. Only in recent years have teenagers been recognized as a uniquely vulnerable audience. 

Food marketing to teens is elusive due to distinctly curated social media algorithms and their age range. The direct collection of data by teenagers gives an accurate depiction of what advertisements are being marketed to their age group, and what ads are registering with the teens. This research strategy allows Elliott and her team to gather accurate insight into the teen environment.

An example of an Instagram ad of "Chippy Chips". A girl in a bikini is smiling and holding up a bag of Chippy Chips.

Example of what teens could upload on GrabFM!

Charlene Elliott

“This matters,” says Elliott, “because Health Canada has committed to monitor food marketing aimed at teenagers as part of its Healthy Eating StrategyOur research works to inform the monitoring strategy, along with providing comprehensive insight into the nutritional quality, marketing strategies and salience of food and beverage marketing to teenagers across the country.”

The research is in its third round of data collection with teenagers, and each round provides a snapshot of what teens in Canada are seeing, and how it's changing over time. So far, the study has found that coffee and fast-food brands consistently are the top ads captured by teenagers, while Instagram is the top platform when it comes to teen-targeted marketing.

But what Elliott found striking is “the sheer quantity of products and brands vying for teens’ attention. In the last round of data collection, participating teenagers uploaded more than 400 unique food brands and food-related services.”

Charlene Elliott

Charlene Elliott

In the exit survey teenagers complete at the end of the study, participants often express surprise at these results, but Elliott says this awareness of food marketing is a crucial skill to obtain.

“It's really important to develop critical media literacy skills… especially when you stop and think how ubiquitous digital media is in the lives of teenagers,” says Elliott.

Elliott held a Tier II CIHR Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing and Children’s Health at UCalgary from 2011-2022. Her role as a Faculty of Arts social scientist and a child health and wellness researcher with the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute has been core to advancing her program of research in child health.

Recruitment for the GrabFM! study is currently open. Teens aged 13 to 17 who live in Canada and attend high school can sign up to participate in the study.

All Kids Thriving: A Vision for Child Health and Wellness

At UCalgary, we’re taking the lead in transforming child health. Join us May 8 for our second event in the Creating Tomorrow series where we will explore the relationships, partnerships and people involved in improving child health and wellness in Canada. Register now.

Charlene Elliot is a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

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