The rise of dark advertising: gambling, alcohol, junk food ads bombarding people in Australia

People standing in line, holding smartphones

Melanie Parker, PHAA

Note: Article updated on 26/01/2023 to correct first table, sixth paragraph, and fourth-last paragraph.

 

After experts voiced concerns about a lack of transparency of social media companies on how people are targeted by unhealthy product advertisers, we decided to investigate how often our own profiles were targeted. Here’s what we found.


 

Gambling, alcohol, and junk food advertisements are constant across many platforms: billboards, televisions, sporting environments – and online. People in Australia are bombarded with these ads every day. Yet one of these platforms features a unique and concerning element that most have probably experienced: dark advertising.

 

What is ‘dark advertising’?

Dark advertising’ is the term coined for targeted advertising online, where, unlike other forms of media, the ads are tailored based on individuals’ data, and often disappear after being viewed. This varies, for example, from a billboard ad, where the public can easily see, and regulators and researchers can easily record, how the advertiser is marketing their product. There’s also often no or limited public archives of unhealthy product advertising data available. As the authors of a Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education report explained:

“Ads are often only visible to their intended targets, they disappear moments after they have been seen, and no one except the platforms knows how, when, where or why the ads appear.”

This means the public, researchers, and policymakers like governments can’t fully understand the extent and method of this advertising. They’re subsequently limited in their ability to regulate appropriately to protect people from the harms associated with unhealthy product marketing.

 

We decided to do a casual, non-academically rigorous experiment to see just how much advertising occurs through social media for two individuals. They recorded the level and range of unhealthy product-related ads they saw over a three-day period in January 2023. They were instructed to try to continue to use their social media channels as normal, other than to record these unhealthy product-related ads on their frequently-used social media channels.

 

The results


South-East Queensland-based public health sector worker in their 20s

Average screen time per day: 4.5 hours

Social media accounts frequently used: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube

Over just three days, a whopping 24 unhealthy product-related ads were shown through their most-used social media accounts.

List of unhealthy product related ads: 3 listed under Facebook heading, 14 under Instagram heading, 7 under YouTube heading.

The ads’ recipient commented on the findings after the experiment:

“Once I started actively observing my social media feed, I was shocked at just how many unhealthy ads I was being exposed to. It makes me wonder who else is being targeted with these ads? People with lived experience? People who are underage?”

 

South Australia-based public health sector worker in their 20s

Average screen time per day: 3.7 hours

Social media accounts frequently used: Facebook, Instagram

The following 17 unhealthy product-related ads were shown over just 72 hours.

9 Facebook ads and 8 Instagram ads listed in table

The pervasiveness of these eye-catching unhealthy product-related ads over just a three-day period was shocking. People in Australia (and across the world) should not be subjected to this constant marketing of unhealthy products on social media, a platform where we can spend many hours each day.

Screenshots of 9 different unhealthy product advertisements from several different companies.

 

 

What about a wider perspective?

Remember that marketing is everywhere – including on websites, bus stops, and sports jerseys. And for millennials who got their first smart phone in high school, many barely remember life without social media and the advertisements that inextricably accompany it.

Influencers and celebrities also spruik unhealthy products through their own social media accounts. The alcohol, gambling, and junk food industries have sunk their claws into people worldwide, including in Australia, and we must find a way to extricate ourselves. Even a global event like the Australian Open tennis championships has ‘partnered’ with seven alcohol companies, including brands from Australia, China, and Italy.

What can be done?

Social media platforms should be required to report to governments, researchers, and the public on who they target and how often, as well as the detail of their unhealthy product campaigns. With accurate data on these ads and associated harms, policymakers will be able to make more informed decisions to protect people from harm.

 

 

Image: Camilo Jimenez/Unsplash

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