See, Like, Share, Remember: Adolescents' Responses to Unhealthy-, Healthy- and Non-Food Advertising in Social Media

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Mar 25;17(7):2181. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17072181.


Media-saturated digital environments seek to influence social media users' behaviour, including through marketing. The World Health Organization has identified food marketing, including advertising for unhealthy items, as detrimental to health, and in many countries, regulation restricts such marketing and advertising to younger children. Yet regulation rarely addresses adolescents and few studies have examined their responses to social media advertising. In two studies, we examined adolescents' attention, memory and social responses to advertising posts, including interactions between product types and source of posts. We hypothesized adolescents would respond more positively to unhealthy food advertising compared to healthy food or non-food advertising, and more positively to ads shared by peers or celebrities than to ads shared by a brand. Outcomes measured were (1a) social responses (likelihood to 'share', attitude to peer); (1b) brand memory (recall, recognition) and (2) attention (eye-tracking fixation duration and count). Participants were 151 adolescent social media users (Study 1: n = 72; 13-14 years; M = 13.56 years, SD = 0.5; Study 2: n = 79, 13-17 years, M = 15.37 years, SD = 1.351). They viewed 36 fictitious Facebook profile feeds created to show age-typical content. In a 3 × 3 factorial design, each contained an advertising post that varied by content (healthy/unhealthy/non-food) and source (peer/celebrity/company). Generalised linear mixed models showed that advertisements for unhealthy food evoked significantly more positive responses, compared to non-food and healthy food, on 5 of 6 measures: adolescents were more likely to wish to 'share' unhealthy posts; rated peers more positively when they had unhealthy posts in their feeds; recalled and recognised a greater number of unhealthy food brands; and viewed unhealthy advertising posts for longer. Interactions with sources (peers, celebrities and companies) were more complex but also favoured unhealthy food advertising. Implications are that regulation of unhealthy food advertising should address adolescents and digital media.

Keywords: adolescent; advertising; attention; food; marketing; obesity; peers; recall; sharing; social media.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior*
  • Advertising*
  • Diet, Healthy*
  • Female
  • Food
  • Food Industry*
  • Humans
  • Internet*
  • Male
  • Marketing
  • Memory
  • Social Media*
  • Television