By Karen Hock, PhD Candidate in Public Health
Growing up, my cousin was a huge Michael Jackson fan. And when Michael Jackson became a spokesperson for Pepsi, you can bet that my cousin started drinking Pepsi, too. Nowadays, my cousin has kids of his own, and it seems that his little ones are exposed to more marketing than ever before.
In addition to traditional marketing through print, radio, and television, companies are increasingly turning to social media to advertise their products. As the top website viewed by children, YouTube plays a key role in their exposure to advertising.
Even though YouTube’s users are required to be over 13 years old, one study found that nearly 60% of British kids aged 5-15 years visited the website daily, spending about 2.5 hours watching videos. And it’s easy to see why, as YouTube’s content is entertaining, original, and can even help kids learn something new.
The rise of influencers
Many kids watch their favorite YouTubers play with toys, review products, and even spend time with their families. And with repeated exposure, the personal nature of these videos can lead kids to develop a one-sided relationship with YouTubers, with kids feeling directly spoken to and understood.
In turn, this has led to the rise of influencers, users with large followings, promoting products in their videos. And kid influencers, children who have gained popularity online, are no exception.
A study of YouTube’s top kid influencers in 2019 provided the first insight into how much food advertising kids can see online. In a sample of over 400 videos from the 5 most-watched kid influencers, over 40% featured food and drinks that were almost always unhealthy. These videos were watched over 1 billion times and had over 2 million likes, suggesting that a concerning amount of unhealthy food is promoted online. And that’s only a drop in the bucket of the unhealthy marketing kids actually see!
Influencer marketing means big business. In 2020 alone, the highest paid influencer on YouTube, a 9-year old with over 40 million subscribers, earned close to $30 million from ads and sponsored products. In the coming years, companies are expected to spend more than $15 billion on influencer marketing, up from about $500 million in 2018.
Why do companies spend so much money on influencers? Because influencers increase purchases among consumers. And research has found a few reasons why this happens, especially in kids: young kids don’t understand they’re viewing ads and often trust the messages they see online; product placement can lead kids to pester their parents to purchase items; and videos using real-life situations increase trust among parents, who become more likely to buy advertised products themselves.
As nearly 1 in 5 kids are currently overweight or obese worldwide, effective policies are urgently needed to support their health. And because unhealthy food marketing can shape kids’ eating habits, restricting their exposure to food advertisements is an important part of the solution. Such policies may be especially critical for minority populations and those of low income, who are often exposed to more unhealthy food advertising than their counterparts.
So what can be done? YouTube, along with other social media platforms, can reduce the amount of influencer marketing that kids see (e.g., removing sponsored posts), which may be more effective if policymakers enforce strict regulations. Influencers themselves can disclose that their posts are sponsored, both by writing (e.g., using #ad) and speaking, as not every kid can read. Plus, health experts suggest that parents can keep an eye on their kids’ internet use, and both children and their parents should be better trained at recognizing new forms of advertising.
Currently, many countries around the world do not have restrictions on influencer marketing. While some places like the United States require influencers to disclose endorsements, kids may still not understand they’re watching ads – and influencers may not always disclose their relationship with sponsors. In contrast, countries like Spain are leading the way to implement regulations against influencer marketing: in March 2022, they proposed a ban on influencers advertising unhealthy food and drinks to kids.
Let’s hope that other countries around the world follow Spain’s footsteps – because while there are many pros to using social media, its influence on eating shouldn’t be (as Michael Jackson would say) bad, bad, really, really bad (shamone!).
Peer edited by Rafia Virk, PhD Student in Nutritional Biochemistry