Fighting Big Food With Social Media

by Dana Woldow on May 21, 2013

Big food and beverage companies are spending less on advertising their products to kids, and yet their presence in children’s lives feels greater than ever. How can that be? Two words – social media. Using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to bring their message to children is vastly cheaper than traditional media, and it may not even be perceived by youngsters as “advertising”, making it all the more insidious. Now one fed-up mom is fighting back, taking advantage of social media’s low cost and ease of distribution to get her message about processed food out to kids.

A December 2012 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report on food marketing to children and adolescents examined data from 44 major food and beverage companies. Comparing 2009 spending to 2006, the report found “total spending on food marketing to youth dropped 19.5% in 2009, to $1.79 billion. Spending on youth-directed television advertising fell 19.5%, while spending on new media, such as online and viral marketing, increased 50%.”

A 2011 report on Food Marketing and Social Media from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University fleshes out what that “online and viral marketing” looks like:

Eleven of the twelve fast food restaurants with the highest sales in 2009 maintained at least one Facebook account during the period we analyzed. Wendy’s and Dairy Queen each created additional profiles to support individual menu items. Only Burger King did not have a presence on Facebook in 2009, but has since joined. We also identified 33 sugary drink advertisers that had joined Facebook by October 2010. Several brands, such as Rockstar and Gatorade, maintained additional accounts to support sponsorship activities.

Food companies are some of the most popular brands on Facebook. Coca-Cola was the most popular of all brands on Facebook and Starbucks was the third-most popular brand on Facebook.

It’s easy to see why industry spending on advertising has decreased as social media use has increased. With a conventional print ad or TV spot, the company pays to create the ad, then pays again to purchase display space in a magazine or newspaper, or a time slot during a TV or radio broadcast.

But using social media is free – there is no print or broadcast space to buy. So, while the food and beverage companies still pay someone to create their social media campaigns, the placements themselves are free. The Rudd researchers note that their study looked only at Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels, all of which are free, as opposed to purchased advertising on those platforms.

The Rudd report, like the FTC, found that food and beverage companies don’t feel the same urgency to use paid advertising to get their message out via social media as they might about traditional media. According to the report, “74% of marketers feel that it is very important to have a presence on Facebook, but only 57% feel the same way about advertising there. Similarly marketers feel that it is more important to have a presence on Twitter (47%) than to advertise there (42%).”

After all, why should they pay, when social media offers such ripe opportunities to engage with “fans” and potential new customers without the cost of a media buy? Not only do big food companies not need to pay for social media advertising, just having fans or followers on social media brings value to the company.

A recent study quantified the value of each fan on a company’s Facebook page at $174.17; the value is based on factors including product spending within the past 12 months, loyalty and purchase intent in the future, propensity to recommend the brand to other potential customers, and the inclination of fans to organically lure more fans.

In other words, big food companies target kids through social media not only to encourage them to use their “pester power” to get parents to buy their products, but also because of kids’ ability to influence those who trust them most – their friends – to do the same.

As the Rudd report explains:

“Individual Facebook users can become a fan of a brand by clicking a “like” button on the brand’s page. A thumbnail photo of that individual is then visible on the brand page in the “people who like this” section. Any time the brand modifies its page (e.g., adds a feature, posts a comment) the activity shows up in the individual’s “news feed,” or personalized Facebook home page. In addition, any time the individual interacts with the brand page, this action shows up in the “news feeds” of all his or her friends. The brand also shows up on the individual’s Facebook page as something that he or she “likes.” “

The report concludes:

“The usage of social media by food marketers has skyrocketed in the past few years. As the data show, young people are heavy users of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and are willing to engage with brands on these platforms. Engagement devices and short-term promotions that are employed on social media pages are designed to keep children and teens coming back with regularity and to share marketing messages with their friends.

“Viral forms of marketing are likely to be most effective at influencing adolescent consumers who are more susceptible to peer influence and highly motivated to fit in with their peers. Although skeptical of traditional forms of marketing, through Facebook and other social media, teens and even younger children are becoming unwitting marketers and exponentially extending the reach of companies’ advertising campaigns.”

Food and beverage companies are taking full advantage of free social media to encourage children and teens to choose their products. Clearly, parents and others concerned about helping kids make smart eating choices need to kick their own social media game up a notch to have any hope of getting the “eat healthy” message heard.

That’s why it is exciting to see the children’s video just released on YouTube by the Houston food writer and mom I profiled a few weeks ago, Bettina Elias Siegel. Her new video is called “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory” and it tells the story of what happens when the residents of a town begin eating processed “fruit and veggie snacks” instead of real fruits and vegetables.

Siegel told me, “I’ve long felt that unless kids are truly invested in improving their dietary choices, no amount of cooking and nutrition education will make any difference. Specifically, if kids could see more clearly how the processed food, fast food and soda industries are earning profits at the expense of their health, I do think they might grow resistant to those industries’ marketing tactics. That was the idea behind Mr. Zee and his apples.”

Writing about kid and food issues on her blog The Lunch Tray, she hears frequently from parents complaining about the unhealthy snacks being marketed for kids – not just the easily-recognized junk food like Cheetos, but the new, supposedly healthy “fruit” and “vegetable” snacks which sometimes turn out to be just as bad as Cheetos.

Siegel wrote her story over a year ago, but was unsure what to do with it. She had been told it didn’t fit the mold of a standard children’s book, but she knew nothing about self-publishing and didn’t think she could afford to hire a professional illustrator. Finally, she just decided to try to do the illustrations on her own.

Although producing the video start to finish took about three weeks of fulltime work, Siegel’s out of pocket expenses were surprisingly minimal. She had a laptop pre-loaded with iMovie, and an iPad (not essential to the project, but more convenient than the laptop for drawing on the go), and she already owned a $50 program called Print Shop, which she used to integrate text into the illustrations.

“So my only additional expenses were the Sketchbook Pro iPad app, which cost $4.99 (though you can get a less souped-up version for free) and a $20 stylus to give me a steadier hand when I drew. Everyone who did a voiceover (including my talented narrator, Rachel Buchman, who does voiceovers professionally) volunteered their services just to help me out and support the cause.”

Uploading the finished project to YouTube was free, as was using Facebook and Twitter to let her friends know that the video was ready to watch. Within 48 hours, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory” had received thousands of views.

How difficult was it, as an amateur who had never attempted a project like this, to get it done? “There was definitely a huge learning curve on this project,” she explained. “First I had to try out several free artwork apps until I found one that worked for me, and over time I got so much better at drawing that I wound up having to throw out a lot of my earlier work. Then I had to figure out how best to get text onto the drawings — you can do this in Sketchbook but it’s not easy. I wound up sending every illustration via my iPad to my laptop, then opening it in Print Shop to add text, then exporting it to iMovie. It was a bit of a hassle! And I’d never used iMovie before, so that was a real process of trial and error, too.”

Would she do it again? “Absolutely!” she assured me. “I think the process will be much easier the second time around. The technology now available to the average person is just amazing, and makes this sort of project possible for anyone willing to take a little time to learn how. I would encourage anyone interested in making their own nutrition education video to jump in and give it a try.”

Of course, not everyone has the equipment, the confidence, or the patience to make their own video, but anyone can use social media. Watch Bettina’s video (with your children, if you have any), and if you like it, share it with your friends. It won’t undo all the marketing that Big Food does to kids, but it’s a start.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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