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Fast-food giants and TikTok build base of child brand ambassadors

Susie O’Brien, July 27, 2022 7:00PM Kids News

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Fast food giant McDonald’s and other major junk brands are using TikTok to attract kids, encouraging them to participate in hashtag challenges and turning some children into unwitting viral brand ambassadors, new research suggests. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images media_cameraFast food giant McDonald’s and other major junk brands are using TikTok to attract kids, encouraging them to participate in hashtag challenges and turning some children into unwitting viral brand ambassadors, new research suggests. Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Children are becoming viral brand ambassadors* for fast-food giants and attracting billions of views while pro­moting unhealthy food and drink on TikTok, new ­research shows.

Some of the most popular fast-food giants, including ­McDonald’s, Pepsi, Cheetos, Doritos, Starbucks and 7-Eleven use hashtag challenges to encourage children to market their products.

Researchers from Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre analysed the TikTok content of 16 of the world’s top-selling food and non-alcoholic beverage brands.

media_cameraCompanies such as Pepsi and McDonald’s are turning kids into unofficial brand ambassadors for junk food. Research from Deakin University suggests kids are taking up brand challenges on TikTok and posting clips of themselves eating a burger or drinking soft drink with hashtags and special effects. Picture: supplied

They found a range of marketing strategies encouraging children to create and share videos featuring their branding and products.

One of the researchers, Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer, said it was an ­“incredibly insidious* strategy by TikTok and junk food ­marketing companies” that turned children into active participants in the marketing of junk food.

“TikTok’s own website describes these challenges as an opportunity for companies to turn TikTok users into their ‘unofficial brand ambassadors’ and we know that many TikTok users are children,” she said.

A TikTok spokesperson said the safety of its user community was a top priority.

“We have clear advertising policies on what is and isn’t allowed to be advertised on TikTok,” the spokesperson said. “Our policies explicitly state that ads for HFSS (high fat, sugar and salt) foods should not feature a specific call to purchase and should not be aimed at users aged 16 years and under.”

But despite official company policy, TikTok is popular among children, with a third of users aged 14 and under.

media_cameraTikTok is popular among children, with a third of users aged 14 and under. Researchers said TikTok’s own website describes a range of marketing strategies like hashtag challenges as opportunities to enlist unofficial brand ambassadors. Picture: supplied

Examples include chip brand Doritos, which created a hashtag challenge for children to create and share videos of themselves eating one of their products.

McDonald’s asked users to record themselves singing alongside a video featuring images of a McDonald’s product.

Such posts portrayed* a positive sentiment* and were viewed billions of times, A/Prof Backholer said.

A single hashtag challenge started by Pepsi collectively received 107.9 billion views.

Celebrities are also used to appeal to children and induce* them to promote the brands.

media_cameraA single hashtag challenge started by Pepsi collectively received 107.9 billion views. Celebrities are also used to appeal to children and induce them to promote the brands, the study found. Picture: supplied

McDonald’s used the K-pop band BTS to promote the “BTS meal”, which had a product code on packaging that unlocked a branded effect on ­TikTok.

“Strong government-led policies to protect children from the harmful impact of unhealthy food marketing are urgently needed,” A/Prof Backholer said. “This is about putting our children’s health before industry profits.”

media_cameraMcDonald’s also tapped into the current K-cool trend by using K-pop band BTS to promote the “BTS meal”, which had a product code on packaging that unlocked a branded effect on TikTok. Picture: supplied

Lead author and associate research fellow Ruby Brooks said that such food marketing “influences kids’ food preferences, purchasing, requests, and consumption”.

“These companies predominantly* sell unhealthy foods and the use of tactics* like these is likely to drive increased selection and consumption of these foods,” she said.

GLOSSARY

  • ambassadors: people who represent, speak for, or advertise organisations, activities, brands
  • insidious: something unpleasant or dangerous that gradually and secretly causes harm
  • portrayed: the way something or someone is represented, described, displayed
  • sentiment: attitude, opinion, or idea about a situation, way of thinking about something
  • induce: to persuade someone to do something, or to cause something to happen
  • predominantly: mainly, chiefly, for the most part
  • tactics: specific action intended to get a particular result

EXTRA READING

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Bad sugar habits are harming kids

TikTok teaching set to trump tired English tasks

QUICK QUIZ

  1. The Deakin University study analysed the TikTok content of how many junk food brands?
  2. A third of TikTok users are of what age?
  3. What specific kind of challenges are these brands using to induce kids to participate?
  4. The Pepsi challenge received how many views?
  5. How did McDonald’s use K-pop band BTS?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Make the rules
Write a list of rules or guidelines that you think would stop junk food companies using kids to help market their products on TikTok or any other social media platform.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Health and Physical Education; Personal and Social Capability

2. Extension
Should the government step in and control what food companies are doing, or should kids be educated so that they don’t take part in these challenges?

Write a piece of persuasive writing that answers this question.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Personal and Social Capability; Health and Physical Education; Civics and Citizenship

VCOP ACTIVITY
Read this!
A headline on an article – or a title on your text – should capture the attention of the audience, telling them to read this now. So choosing the perfect words for a headline or title is very important.

Create three new headlines for the events that took place in this article. Remember, what you write and how you write it will set the pace for the whole text, so make sure it matches.

Read out your headlines to a partner and discuss what the article will be about based on the headline you created. Discuss the tone and mood you set in just your few, short words. Does it do the article justice? Will it capture the audience’s attention the way you hoped? Would you want to read more?

Consider how a headline or title is similar to using short, sharp sentences throughout your text. They can be just as important as complex ones. Go through the last text you wrote and highlight any short, sharp sentences that capture the audience.

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