Calls for tougher regulations after study finds fast food brands targeting youths on TikTok

There are calls for tougher regulations on fast food advertising following an Australian study into how unhealthy foods are promoted on TikTok.

It found fast food brands are encouraging TikTok stars to market their products for them and often to a predominantly young audience.

A harmless display of burger appreciation, or a promotion of unhealthy food influencing young viewers? Australian research published in BMJ Global Health argues the latter.

It found that influencers on TikTok, a video-sharing app with an estimated one billion users, are encouraged by fast food brands to promote their products.

"Unhealthy food and beverage brands are encouraging TikTok users to market their products for them," the study said. 

And in the majority of cases, user-generated content featuring such products was 73 percent positive and influenced their audience's food preferences

And given TikTok's popularity with children, the researchers emphasised "the need for policies that will protect them from the harmful impact of this type of marketing on social media".

"I was shocked, I have to say, I mean TikTok is invisible to me just like it's probably invisible to most parents and I'm certain lawmakers as well," said Health Coalition Aotearoa's Boyd Swinburn.

The Advertising Standards Authority told Newshub the most complaints about social media advertisements in 2021 were on Instagram and Facebook, but no complaints to date have targeted TikTok.

The Chinese social media giant told Newshub its policies explicitly state that ads for unhealthy foods "should not feature a specific call to purchase and should not be aimed at users aged 16 years and under".

Unhealthy food marketing researcher Fiona Sing says Aotearoa needs stronger regulations to protect rangitahi.

"Currently in New Zealand there is zero legislative accountability for companies that market their products to children or that children are exposed to."

She supports the UK's policy to ban all "paid-for advertising of less healthy food and drink".

"We think that is an excellent example to follow," Sing added. 

But it's clearly not on our Government's, or Health Minister Andrew Little's, agenda.

"I'm not aware we have any policy of that nature or that it's under consideration at this point."

As calls to regulate fast food advertising grow, so do new ways of marketing it.