Junkfluencer – how advertising on social networks influences children

A new study by MedUni Vienna shows that children are far too often confronted with unhealthy foods on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, and these usually go unnoticed. Here, the Austrian Safer Internet Centre delves into the topic of "junkfluencers". 

Date 2022-09-28 Author Austrian Safer Internet Centre Section awareness Topic media literacy/education Audience children and young people, parents and carers, teachers, educators and professionals
Woman Eating Melting Ice Cream

What are "junkfluencers"?  

Influencers who promote unhealthy foods in their posts are called junkfluencers. On YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and similar online platforms, online stars pose with snacks and drinks that are particularly high in fat, salt and sugar. This is usually done in cooperation with companies that pay successful influencers to advertise their products. 

What is the problem?  

Of course, children and young people are confronted with advertising everywhere. However, what influencers do, think and recommend in social networks has a particularly lasting influence on them. When their idols promote junk food, it has an effect on their eating habits. And of course, the influence of online stars is not only present in the promotion of unhealthy food – but also in the marketing of all other products, brands and services. 

Why does influencer marketing work so well?  

Influencers are extremely credible for children. They serve as role models, but are not perceived as unapproachable stars – rather, they almost have the status of real friends. You can communicate with them directly by watching their stories, liking their posts, or sending them private messages. By sharing their personal everyday life with their young fans through photos and videos, online stars offer an important source for identification and convey a feeling of esteem and friendship. 

When influencers pose with their supposed favourite soft drink in their hand, try out a new ready-made biscuit dough or promote their own pizza creation, children do not perceive this as annoying advertising, but as a trustworthy recommendation – comparable to a recommendation to buy from a friend. 

On the one hand, children lack the critical distance to the influencers, and on the other hand, younger users, in particular, find it difficult to recognise advertising as such. The challenge is particularly great online, as editorial content is often hard to distinguish from advertising, and product placements are often used. For these reasons, children must be particularly well protected from advertising on the internet. However, there are still legal grey areas here. 

What laws do influencers have to abide by?  

Advertising by influencers is subject to a legal framework in Germany and Austria. This applies, above all, to the prohibition of direct requests to buy to children and the labelling obligation: influencers must label advertising content as such as soon as they receive a service in return for the advertised product f this is usually money, but can also be free test products, paid press trips, or similar. 

Without consideration, the labelling obligation can be waived – this is stipulated by an amendment to the German Unfair Competition Act that came into force in May 2022 after contradictory court rulings and warnings have repeatedly led to confusion regarding the labelling obligation in recent years. 

As far as placement, size and naming are concerned, there are no clear rules in the labelling obligation. As a result, influencers often design their advertising very inconspicuously or do not even clearly label their posts and videos as advertising. In order to protect children from advertising, it should be recognisable at first glance. 

The fusion of editorial and advertising content becomes problematic when it comes to the promotion of junk food. Children's marketing for unbalanced food is hardly subject to legal restrictions in Germany as well as in Austria. Here, the focus is mainly on recommendations and voluntariness such as the EU Pledge (a voluntary commitment of the food and beverage industry), the advertising standards of the World Health Organization (WHO) for children, or the codes of conduct of the German and Austrian Advertising Council. However, none of this is mandatory – which is why some companies and advertisers do not participate at all and others do not comply. 

The influence of junkfluencers 

The extent to which junkfluencers influence their young fans is shown by recent studies on the topic of influencer and children's marketing: where there are no legal restrictions, the consumption of junk food is increasing significantly, as a report by Foodwatch 2021 has revealed and, worldwide, more and more children and adolescents are overweight. Three quarters of the products advertised by influencers are so unhealthy that they violate the World Health Organization's advertising standards for children, as a recent study by the Medical University of Vienna shows. This is why experts are calling for restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods on the internet – especially in social networks. 

What can parents do?  

Talk about influencer inside marketing. Explain to your child what advertising is and what it wants to achieve – namely, that people buy certain products. Make your child aware that influencers also advertise and that there are often sophisticated business models behind their appearances. Discuss what forms of influencer marketing exist (such as product placement). 

Practise together how to recognise advertising on the internet. Look for advertising references with your child (such as hashtags like #ad, #advertising, #ad, etc., markings of advertising partners or links to companies), question product placements, and puzzle together about what is really real about the posts. The best way to do this is playfully – there are various quizzes on social networks and advertising on the net, and these offer a good introduction to the topic. 

Show interest in the online stars. Ask your child which influencers they like and why. Let them show you videos and posts by their idols. This will not only help you to better understand your child's fascination, but you will also gain a better insight into the world of social media stars and an understanding of how influencer marketing works. 

Further information on the topic of influencer marketing can be found in the study "Kinder im Visier von Influencer-Marketing" (Children targeted by influencer marketing) by the Austrian Arbeiterkammer (AK). 

This article is reproduced here in translated form with permission. Link to the original news article (in German) on the Saferinternet.at website.  

Find more information about the work of the Austrian Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline, and youth participation services – or find similar information for other Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe

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