Junk food brands accused of 'COVID-washing', taking advantage of pandemic to 'undermine public health'

Fast food outlets and junk food brands have been accused of "COVID-washing" - taking advantage of stressed and worried Kiwis to sell more fat- and sugar-filled food.

In some cases they were willing to break advertising rules to do so, researchers in Australia and New Zealand found

"Being bombarded by advertising online undermines our ability to eat well, and during the pandemic these companies were preying on our anxiety," said Sarah Gerritsen, public health researcher at the University of Auckland.

"The misappropriation of social concern about the pandemic in order to promote unhealthy products and build brand loyalty at a time when many people were experiencing heightened stress is unconscionable and undermined public health."

Dr Gerritsen and others looked at posts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter made by 20 of the biggest junk and fast food brands in the country, made between February 1 and May 31 last year - during which time New Zealand shut its borders and went to alert level 4, successfully stopping an outbreak of COVID-19 that could have left thousands dead. 

In those four months, 14 of the biggest 20 brands made social media posts referencing the pandemic - Whittaker's, Lindt, KitKat, M&Ms, Eta, Arnott's, Griffin's, Coca-Cola, V, McDonald's, KFC, Subway, Burger King and Domino's. Of the 1368 posts they made, some seen by hundreds of thousands of Kiwis, nearly one-in-three were COVID-themed. 

The first came from Coca-Cola on March 6. Domino's did the most, averaging more than 1.5 COVID-themed posts a day between March 16 - the day the Government limited gatherings to 500 people - and the end of May, when the country had just marked a week of no new cases. 

Posts from confectionary brands peaked during the level 4 lockdown - with supermarkets and other essential services still open, sweets were still on sale. In the week leading up to the shift to level 3 - which National Party leader Judith Collins infamously described as "a lot like level 4 but with KFC" - COVID-themed posts from fast food outlets skyrocketed. 

"This is arguably when many viewers would be most vulnerable to 'comfort' or binge eating due to the jubilation of being out of lockdown and relief at the end of a prolonged period of heightened stress caused by the pandemic," the study said.

Frontiers in Nutrition
Fast food outlets rushed to post on social media before the level 4 restrictions were lifted last year. Photo credit: Frontiers in Nutrition

More than a third of posts sought to "draw on feelings of community support during this challenging and unprecedented time with phrases such as #allinthistogether (Domino's), 'Kia kaha [Stand strong]' (McDonald's), 'We know these are challenging times for all of us' (Lindt)", the study said.

About a third advertised the outlet's delivery service, and a similar number their hygiene policies, 

"'Consumption helps with coping' was another reoccurring theme in the social media posts, particularly from snack food and fast-food brands," the study said, urging followers to "share how much they missed the food product during the lockdown". 

The most popular COVID-themed post was from KFC, featuring a "video of a person in a life-size branded character doing a dance routine", watched nearly 500,000 times. 

The researchers found six posts that might have breached Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules - four that appeared to target children, and two "encouraging excessive consumption". 

"Not sure who needs to hear this, but you can order Domino's more than once today. It's OK," read a Domino's post the researchers singled out. 

Several brands also latched onto the 'teddy bear hunt' craze, encouraging people to buy Easter eggs and put them in the window instead, for example. 

The researchers said the ASA automatically throws out complaints about advertising junk food to children if the ad appears on social media, since most social media outlets don't allow people under 13 to join - but it "is clear that these restrictions can be circumvented by children who may use their parents or other adults details or misrepresent their age".

Some brands used their social media accounts to "applaud health care staff or essential workers and publicize donations of food to either front-line workers or foodbanks".

Dr Gerritsen compared many of the posts to "green-washing" - where companies put more effort into trying to look environmentally-friendly than actually being environmentally-friendly.

"Covid-washing portrays a company as empathetic and contributing in a meaningful way to the pandemic response, when, in reality, it was just another strategy to promote products and choices that are detrimental to health." 

The research was published this week in journal Frontiers in Nutrition

Newshub contacted the companies singled out by the researchers as potentially breaking ASA rules - McDonald's, Griffin's, Domino's, Frucor and Whittaker's. 

A spokesperson for McDonald's said the research "shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how brands operate on social media channels, and presents a number of incorrect and misleading suppositions", and the researchers "do not take into account the macroenvironment during lockdown and alert level 3".

"User generated content and news media coverage built up an anticipation for the reopening of the likes of McDonald's. In addition to responding to that excitement, much of our COVID-19 related content was functional and instructional, explaining to customers what to expect when visiting a McDonald's," a spokesperson said. 

As far as the claim one of their social media posts breached advertising rules, McDonald's said it was "strange" they hadn't laid a complaint to confirm if it does or doesn't. 

Domino's told Newshub its social media advertising reflected "what is happening within our communities at any given time", including during the lockdown. The company said it took great efforts to keep its staff and customers safe by changing its delivery practices, and "took action, feeding the frontline, those over 70 and offering the opportunity of a new job to so many who had already been laid off".

"This was reflected in our social media posts... At Domino's we don't try to be anything we're not. We know our customers come to us for a treat and we remain focused on providing more choice to customers than ever before."

Whittaker's said it actually posted less often on social media than usual during the lockdowns, and that as a "premium chocolate maker" its advertising is targeted at the "key demographic of female household shoppers aged 25-54, not to children". 

"We promote our Easter Kiwis, which again are a premium product targeted to our key demographic, every year to get into the spirit of the occasion but because it happened to coincide with the COVID lockdown last year, the content and call to action obviously needed to reflect those extraordinary circumstances... While we accept the study makes some important points, we do not think it is reasonable to cite Whittaker's as an example of these."