Year

2018

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Health and Society

Abstract

Background: The increasing global prevalence of poor quality diets is a key contributor to rising rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases and related deaths and disabilities worldwide. Dietary behaviour is exceedingly difficult to change; partly, due to the aggressive mass marketing of unhealthy products driven by food and beverage industries that influence consumers’ food choices. The emergence of digital media has opened up another promotional channel for marketers to promote unhealthy food and beverages (i.e. energy-dense nutrientpoor). The unique features of digital media, such as its immersive nature and many-to-many communication, may potentially amplify the negative effects of traditional broadcast marketing (i.e. television, print media) of the unhealthy food and beverages, especially among young adults who have a strong online presence.

Aim: The research outlined in this thesis aimed to explore the influences of digital marketing on young adults’ food-related attitudes and behaviours, with a special emphasis on energy drinks, a relatively new, unhealthy beverage product which contains high amounts of sugar and stimulants associated with adverse health outcomes, and are popular among young adults (aged 18-24 years) in Australia.

Methods: This research applied a mixed-methods approach that incorporated three studies. The first study used thematic content analyses to determine the nature and extent of appealing strategies used by energy drink brands on digital platforms. In this study, textual and visual elements (n= 624) were extracted from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites and ‘advergames’ (branded online games) related to identified energy drink brands (Red Bull and V Energy) in Australia. The second study was a pre-test post-test experimental study (n= 60) conducted to determine the impacts of digital marketing on young adults. Young adults were assigned to a short exposure of two popular energy drink brands’ websites and social media pages. Pre-test post-test surveys were used to determine changes in participants’ attitudes towards, and intended purchase and consumption of energy drink products. Semi-structured interviews were conducted after the experiment to determine participants’ thoughts and feelings about the exposure materials in order to understand what strategies were more appealing or less appealing to the participants. The third study was an online survey (n= 359) undertaken to determine the relative strength of digital marketing as compared to other forms of marketing activities, and to determine the mediating effects of behavioural antecedents from the Theory of Planned Behaviour in the relationship between digital marketing and energy drink use.

Results: Energy drink brands appeared to target young people on digital platforms, using strategies that were likely to be attuned with young people’s desires or aspirations. The thematic content analysis identified digital marketing content based on young people’s desired social identity and peer connectivity. Experimental exposure to digital marketing of energy drinks enhanced young adults’ interests, attitudes, intended purchase and consumption of these unhealthy products. Young adults reported to be impressed by less explicit forms of marketing techniques, such as the companies’ corporate social responsibility efforts. The larger online survey identified that digital marketing was more strongly associated with young adults’ energy drink consumption as compared to other forms of marketing strategies. The effects of digital marketing on energy drink consumption were mediated by the three constructs of the Theory of Planned Behaviour- attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control.

Discussion and Conclusion: Unhealthy beverages such as energy drinks are not necessary in the diet. The widespread promotional strategies of energy drink brands on the Internet revealed in this research provide confirming evidence that energy drink industries are targeting on young people. The significant association between digital marketing and young adults’ energy drink use highlighted the negative effects of digital marketing on consumption behaviours. Digital marketing strategies can be ‘subtle’ in appearance for instance, seeding the marketing messages through young adults’ online social interactions with peers, and can generate goodwill towards companies, including through brands’ online promotion of their ‘philanthropic’ activities. The impact of this novel form of marketing on food environment requires greater attention from the public health communities; researchers, regulators and practitioners need to be more proactive in considering regulatory and other actions to counter such marketing.

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