Digital media marketing firms are using new techniques to sell products high in fat, sugar and salt to young people, according to a University of Sydney Business School study.


A number of methods are being used by digital marketers to build brand relationships with young consumers in ways not seen in traditional media, according to findings of the study of six food brands by Associate Professor of Marketing, Teresa Davis.


Dr Davis analysed the content of branded mobile phone applications, branded websites and branded Facebook sites to understand the nature of consumer–brand relationship strategies employed by digital marketers.


She found the techniques used include the use of personalised promotion, interactive and direct engagement and integrated cross-platform techniques, findings that could have implications for future policies and regulatory measures to combat growing obesity rates.


While regulation exists to limit the advertising of ‘junk’ food to children through television and other broadcast media, little is understood about how children are affected by online advertising, Dr Davis says, with much delivered “under-the-radar” via product placement.


“Food marketers have an unfair advantage in the digital space. Understanding how it works and how it can be regulated or managed is extremely important if we want to ensure a healthy future for generations of young Australians,” Dr Davis said.


“Since working on my PhD, How young children recognise the symbolism of brands, it has been clear to me that young children do not understand advertising in quite the same way that adults do.


“Cognitively, there are developmental differences. This simply means their minds are more vulnerable to persuasion.”


According to Dr Davise, regulations governing traditional advertising does more to help protect the vulnerable.


“Hidden advertising in newer forms of digital media makes it harder than ever for children, and their parents, to understand how much of it they are exposed to.


“My hope is that this research will inform our policy making. In the Australian context we have a food marketing industry that is currently ‘self-regulating’, there is a code of practice and companies can be called to account only through a complaints based system.


“This system has a poor record when it comes to in censuring advertising that breaks the rules,” Dr Davis says.


According to the World Health Organisation, one in four Australian children are overweight or obese. This percentage increases to two in three by the time they reach adulthood – a 10 per cent increase from 1995.