Junk food ads don’t just harm children’s health—they also infringe on their online privacy

A new report looks at how food companies use geolocation and social media, among other tools, to influence what kids eat.

In the fall of 2019, Coca-Cola subsidiary Fanta tried to meet the youth where they were: on finsta.

For the unfamiliar, the term refers to secondary Instagram accounts that teens and young adults use to share content of a more personal or absurd nature than they would on their public profiles. As part of a new marketing campaign, Fanta created distinct Instagram accounts for some of its most popular flavors, each meant to be a finsta-like landing page separate from the company’s corporate account. The point? To reach Gen Z in a mode that felt intimate and familiar.

“We borrowed from real teen behavior,” wrote a designer involved with the social media campaign.

Fanta’s finsta pages even encouraged followers to send in personal photographs via direct message, which the company would edit to incorporate Fanta products and logos. The whole production was a notable departure from the company’s more traditional television advertisements; the novelty garnered a fair bit of press attention at the time. It also raised concerns among consumer protection advocates about emerging strategies that food and beverage companies are adopting to sell junk food to kids.

While public health advocates have long criticized such ads as harmful to children’s health, a new report is making the case that they may also infringe on kids’ privacy. Its authors point to Fanta’s Instagram campaign as an example of how foods low in nutritious value get pushed onto an impressionable demographic with little oversight.

“Global giants in the food and beverage industry are working together with leading tech companies to ensure that unhealthy brands and products are woven into the media and cultural experiences that dominate the lives of young people,” reads the report, which was published on Wednesday by the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that advocates for stricter regulation of tech companies.

It cited a 2019 Burger King ad campaign that used geolocation data on phones to detect when potential customers were within 600 feet of a McDonald’s—before nudging them to head to Burger King for a free Whopper instead.

Public health researchers estimate that companies spend $14 billion on food marketing per year, the majority of which is devoted to products that are low in nutritional value. That doesn’t tell the whole story: As journalist Michael Moss has documented, companies also invest significant resources into developing foods with highly addictive qualities.

The paper examined a range of digital environments—from social media to video game streaming sites—where data is collected from young people and targeted ads served. For instance, it cited a 2019 Burger King ad campaign that used geolocation data on phones to detect when potential customers were within 600 feet of a McDonald’s—before nudging them to head to Burger King for a free Whopper instead. (Well, almost free, the burgers cost one cent.) On the popular live stream platform Twitch, Mountain Dew created a popular chatbot to collect consumer data while promoting soda.

Campaigns on Instagram and Twitch might not explicitly target kids, but their practices—like hiring popular TikTok influencers to promote products—effectively do because kids make up a significant portion of the platforms’ users. And because of loopholes in laws meant to protect children’s privacy online, the authors argued, companies are able to collect information about young people, including their name, location, and photos, analyze the data, and then use it to target ads to people at an age when they’re easily swayed.

“Advertising is a classical conditioning process where it creates positive associations between these products and outcomes like happiness, joy, fun, cool, all of the messages that are portrayed in the ads, and they sort of become part hardwired in kids’ brains,” said Jennifer Harris, a senior research advisor on food marketing at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who was not involved in the study. “Over time, those preferences and eating behaviors contribute to diet-related diseases.”

“Marketing takes place across multiple platforms in an orchestrated way to reach and engage individual consumers and to do so repeatedly, which is not the same thing as what you see on television ten years ago.”

This isn’t the first time that public health groups and nutrition experts have raised concerns about junk food marketing online. In July of last year, one coalition called on the Department of Agriculture to limit junk food ads appearing on remote learning websites. A study published last October found that more than 90 percent of food featured in kid-oriented Youtube videos was unhealthy, raising alarm among groups that advocate against children’s exposure to commercials. 

Part of the solution to pervasive junk food marketing online might lay in modernizing child privacy protections, which haven’t been updated to reflect the way kids interact with social media and the internet today, said Kathryn Montgomery, professor emeritus of media policy at American University and co-author of the report. For example, she pointed to the development of targeted advertising, which allows companies to use internet trackers to customize ads and serve them to people based on internet use, personal information, and browsing history across many devices.

“The [current] digital environment is so much more personal and so much more intrusive and pervasive,” said Montgomery. “Marketing takes place across multiple platforms in an orchestrated way to reach and engage individual consumers and to do so repeatedly, which is not the same thing as what you see on television ten years ago.”

Currently, companies are prohibited from collecting personal information online from kids under 13 without parental consent. However, that can be somewhat of a Faustian bargain for most families during the pandemic, which has forced most social activities and education online. (Not to mention that kids can get around age limits simply by lying about how old they are.)

“What kind of environment do we want to create for our young people to be growing up in? Do we really want these products being pushed to them, whatever techniques are being used?”

“Parents today have really very little choice but to agree to allow all this data collection to occur, especially during a pandemic when kids had to be online for school and entertainment,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and another co-author of the report.

Members of Congress have introduced proposals in recent years aimed at strengthening children’s privacy protections online, though none have come to fruition. Other measures meant to protect kids from food marketing are fairly toothless: Ten years ago, the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees consumer protection, released for public comment a set of principles meant to encourage companies against marketing junk food to children. As food studies researcher Marion Nestle pointed out at the time, these guidelines are completely voluntary and, as such, companies really don’t have much reason to follow them. The Federal Communications Commission has limits on children’s advertising on television, but that doesn’t extend into the sphere of social media and video streaming sites, where kids spend a lot more time today.

The report’s authors hope that by highlighting the intersection between two concerns that are typically thought of separately—junk food marketing and data privacy—consumers, as well as lawmakers, might ask new questions about changes they’d like in both spheres.

“Eliminating all of the marketing of unhealthy foods from the digital media should be a goal,” said Montgomery. “What kind of environment do we want to create for our young people to be growing up in? Do we really want these products being pushed to them, whatever techniques are being used?”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.