Big Data and the transformation of food and beverage marketing: What can public health advocates do about it?

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How many times have you checked your phone today? If your cell phone use is on par with the average American, the most recent data tell us that you will have looked at your phone 80 times before you go to bed tonight — and that doesn't account for the other digital devices that you may have used throughout the day.

Every time we use one of these devices, marketers are gathering increasingly sophisticated data about us. They can glean details about our lives ranging in specificity from what we eat for breakfast, to our household income and where we live. With this information, digital advertisers can target individuals in real time with marketing tailored to their behaviors and preferences. While this can sometimes seem like a harmless feature of modern life — for instance, the shoes that you previously considered buying online suddenly appear in a Facebook ad — this unprecedented ability for marketers to gather data about the most personal aspects of our lives also raises significant concerns. Aside from the undeniable questions around privacy, there is concern in the public health community about how the food industry is using this data to target people with advertising for unhealthy products.

Consider that Kantar, a major market-research firm, used individualized, digital marketing techniques to analyze the behavior of Latino Facebook users who had declared themselves "brand fans" of McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell. Kantar used the data to help these fast-food restaurants reach the same Latino users directly with their advertising. In this way, digital marketers have introduced new methods for identifying and targeting consumers more precisely than ever based on their ethnicity and race.

Critical Public Health journal coverKnown as "culture coding," the practice is one of six individualized digital marketing techniques that the authors of a recent commentary, published in Critical Public Health, say are transforming the food marketing system. The paper, co-written by BMSG's Laura Nixon and Lori Dorfman, along with our colleagues at American University and the Center for Digital Democracy, explains these six marketing techniques and highlights the ways in which food and beverage companies are using powerful new targeting tools to promote junk food, sugar-sweetened beverages and other unhealthy products to the public — and how they could ultimately undermine public health efforts to reduce obesity.

In their commentary, the authors argue that the confluence of new ways to quickly gather, analyze and use large volumes of information — so called "Big Data" — coupled with our society's widespread and increasing use of digital devices, has reshaped food marketing in ways that, left unchecked, will worsen health outcomes and increase health inequities. They point out that while public health professionals and other stakeholders have suggested that Big Data techniques could be harnessed to improve nutrition, there is little research on the impact of these new marketing techniques on food consumption patterns and the obesity epidemic. To inform public health interventions, the authors call for a bold research agenda that addresses how these practices influence health.

We spoke with our colleague Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy and a co-author of the Critical Public Health commentary, to learn more about the implications of Big Data marketing strategies.

Based on your research, which emerging marketing tactics do you think will be most harmful for populations' health?

A powerful package of digital marketing practices — fueled by both Big Data and our reliance on online devices and applications — enable advertisers to gain unprecedented insight into our personal behaviors. These advertisers now know which of our "touchpoints" can be leveraged to encourage us to buy fast food, ask our physician to prescribe branded medications or seek unnecessary medical treatments. A key concern is the ability of advertisers to take advantage of our real-time geo-location, made possible by our mobile phones, to deliver targeted marketing.

Could you share an example of how Big Data marketing plays out in real-life situations?

Nearly all marketing today is data-driven and used to track individuals across their devices (mobile phones, computers, digital TVs). Food and beverage advertisers, for example, gather and analyze our information so that we can be sent an ad when we are at the grocery store or a fast-food outlet. They also target us with these ads when we are shopping online. One growing tactic used by fast-food restaurants relies on what's known as a "geo-fence." Even if you are several blocks away from one of these restaurants, marketers can recognize your mobile device, which triggers ads, offers and coupons. This is an unprecedented form of commercial surveillance.

How do these marketing techniques affect children?

Young people are key targets for digital advertisers. More research is needed to understand how these ads influence children's decision-making and shape their attitudes toward products and brands, but a key goal of the marketing industry is to reach young people at the earliest age possible, so that they will subconsciously embrace and desire commercial products, such as fast food and entertainment.

Which communities are most impacted by Big Data food marketing? How are these practices used to target young people by ethnicity and race?

Everyone is affected, since all the leading food, beverage and supermarket chains have developed a sophisticated apparatus to promote and sell their products. However, communities of color suffer disproportionately from obesity and other nutrition-related health problems, and they may find themselves further at risk as a result of the double dose of marketing they're receiving from both mainstream campaigns and those that are being targeted at them directly. Digital marketers have developed a variety of practices to help them more precisely target communities of color, using racial, ethnic, location, financial and other data.

What makes Big Data marketing more pernicious than traditional forms of marketing, like television ads and billboards?

This is a highly personalized and pervasive form of marketing that learns about you, tracks you wherever you go, analyzes what you say to friends and family, and knows what products you buy. It's how the "Mad Men" (and women) of the 21st Century advertise to us. Such data-driven marketing is also changing the way ads are delivered on TV, and even on billboards.

What type of research do you think is most urgently needed in this area?

Online marketers combine the data they have on individuals and communities with techniques — such as neuromarketing — designed to influence our emotions and unconscious. We need research to understand how today's marketing environment is impacting the health and well-being of the public.

What interventions are needed from the public health community to challenge these potentially harmful data-driven marketing techniques?

Public health researchers should make the examination of the role of Big Data and digital marketing a priority issue. As a public health community, we need to gain a better understanding of how it will impact the personal health choices of Americans and what it will mean for our changing health delivery system. For example, researchers could identify the various ways that fast food and other marketers target young people and communities of color using digital marketing aimed at specific neighborhoods. This data can be accessible and could help foster new community-based interventions that reflect public health problems in the digital era.

To learn more about food and beverage marketing to kids and adolescents, check out the website of the Food Marketing Workgroup, a network of organizations and academic experts that BMSG coordinates with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

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