Date Published: February 2, 2017
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Limin Buchanan, Bridget Kelly, Heather Yeatman, Jean Adams.
Young adults experience faster weight gain and consume more unhealthy food than any other age groups. The impact of online food marketing on “digital native” young adults is unclear. This study examined the effects of online marketing on young adults’ consumption behaviours, using energy drinks as a case example. The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion was used as the theoretical basis. A pre-test post-test experimental research design was adopted using mixed-methods. Participants (aged 18–24) were randomly assigned to control or experimental groups (N = 30 each). Experimental group participants’ attitudes towards and intended purchase and consumption of energy drinks were examined via surveys and semi-structured interviews after their exposure to two popular energy drink brands’ websites and social media sites (exposure time 8 minutes). Exposure to digital marketing contents of energy drinks improved the experimental group participants’ attitudes towards and purchase and consumption intention of energy drinks. This study indicates the influential power of unhealthy online marketing on cognitively mature young adults. This study draws public health attentions to young adults, who to date have been less of a focus of researchers but are influenced by online food advertising.
Young adults are experiencing rapid weight gain [1–2] and are at greater risks of developing weight-related non-communicable diseases over time. Data from the Australian National Health Survey 2014–15 indicated that approximately 39% young adults aged 18–24 years were overweight or obese  and this age group consumed more unhealthy food and beverages than any other age groups . Despite the growing health issues among this age group, research about influences on young adults’ consumption behaviours is scarce.
This study adopted a pre-test post-test control group experimental model. A mixed-methods design was employed utilising a quantitative survey technique complemented by qualitative semi-structured interviews. All materials and procedures were approved by the University of Wollongong Human Research Ethics Committee (HE15-280). Participant Information Sheets were provided to the participants and their written consents were obtained before their participation in the study.
Participants in the experimental and control groups were similar (statistically) in gender, age, education levels, Internet usage, and their usual Internet activities (Table 1). Although attempts were made to recruit participants from various demographic backgrounds, the majority of the study participants were university students (N = 49/60). At pre-test, participants’ attitudes towards, and purchase intention of, the test energy drinks brands and energy drinks products in general were similar between experimental and control groups (Table 1).
This study demonstrated the potential influential power of food and beverage digital marketing on cognitively mature young adults. After a short exposure to digital marketing materials, participants had a better impression of, greater purchase intention and were more likely to consume energy drinks. Of surprise was the revelation that central cues, such as corporate social responsibility as demonstrated by the brands, was reported by the participants in a manner that implied they had greater impacts on the young adults than the peripheral cues like emotional appeals.
With the greater interactions of young people with online environments and social media, it is important to understand how young people’s consumption patterns and health behaviours may be affected. This study provides useful insights into the online environment that may contribute to unhealthy behaviours of young adults. Greater understanding of the types of cues and their influences on young adults’ attitudes and potentially also their behaviours can inform professional practice and regulatory policies relating to online environments.