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How is digital marketing affecting your health based decisions?

As I did my weekly email check, I came across the WHO article on “exploitative marketing” of breast milk substitutes more commonly referred to as baby formula milk. While this blog post will go into some detail on the direct effects on mothers and why WHO flag that as a problem, my instant thoughts went to all the other possible ways the media can influence our health based decisions.

Digital media
includes any online or digital means of transmitting marketing communications, including but not limited to, websites, social networking environments, search engine advertisements, banner advertisements, email communications, streaming audio and video, online gaming, messaging services, mobile services and online retail platforms

Consuming digital media has become a part of everyday life. Whether it’s restricted or unlimited scrolling on your favourite app for hours. Digital media has given a platform for anyone to share information, as with all spaces there are pros and cons. In the healthcare space, marketing ads affecting health based decisions is one of particular concern to the world's biggest health organisation - WHO.

The WHO news article and reports brought forward the detrimental effects to newborns with the rise of breastmilk substitutes. According to the WHO, babies should solely consume breast milk for at least 6 months of life which also excludes water. The health benefits and importance are listed on their site. The WHO has a goal of achieving a target of 50% of babies to be exclusively breastfed in their first six months of life. The rise of breastmilk substitutes and targeted ads are having a detrimental effect on these goals . Advertising rules used today were set in 1981 and are being applied to a media landscape that wasn’t even imaginable at the time of writing of these rules. The report highlights the problems with “user generated content “ , “ dark posts'' and even companies using community spaces to obtain valuable information on target demographics to sell products. The report had many quotables that left me thinking of the endless possibilities and subconscious ways our habits, discussions and intended safe online spaces are being used.

Dark Posts
a digital form of direct marketing that enables advertisers to create and distribute advertisements tailored for narrowly selected groups of people to only and exactly those groups of people. These advertisements only appear only in the newsfeeds of those users and do not appear anywhere else (these are also known as unpublished posts)

The marketing rules as mentioned in the WHO article don't actually allow companies to directly advertise or promote these substitutes through traditional advertising or even through direct media using the companies own page in some countries. The grey area of dark posts and user generated content has somehow created a loophole that the law hasn’t yet accounted for. User generated content pieces feed off the trust built within communities or influencers allows this prohibited content to come off as genuine. User generated content when genuine just act as reviews that influence a new consumer of the product being sold. With the rise of social media, giveaways, competitions and the simple rise of content creators begins to blur the lies of where the reviews are genuine.

A few standout points from the report include:

Research conducted by Hastings and colleagues quoted a BMS marketing executive, who said that his company “is always on a quest to find ways to identify women who are pregnant for the first time … first time mothers are the holy grail”

These data can also be used to strengthen BMS marketers’ capacity for “building faux-friendships rather than making an overt sales pitch: ‘we want to build a relationship with you as a mother, we want to support you, we want you to see us as an ally and we want to subtly insinuate ourselves as your friend and support in a healthy pregnancy and a happy baby

BMS companies routinely establish virtual support groups — known— often products — that consumers do not even know that they need, usually do not need and may cause harm.


Moving away from the topic of breast milk. Why are companies infiltrating online safe spaces? Online spaces come as a form of release for many, there are many platforms where sharing our wants, hopes, disappointments are becoming more common. As an avid tik tok user, I have come across many deeply personal stories that are often debated on twitter to be considered oversharing. If companies continue to infiltrate these spaces and use the information to promote products they want us to need.

In terms of health related content this has a great effect on things like types of contraceptives used, vitamin supplements that may be no different and even skewing our our outlook on health and disease. As an avid sharer of health news and promoter of science engaging with the community, this comes as a disappointment. As content fills the internet we are becoming more sceptical of “the norm” and more people seem to be receptive to alternate ways of doing things. In some cases this can be community finding that final solution, but in the mix can be brands manipulating people who lack the time or patience to stop and ask “ do I really need this”.

If anything this blog post is a sign to pay more attention to the things recommended and #EndExploitativeMarketing.

Will there be a change in Legislation?

It’s all fine knowing what you are exposed to but the internet and ads aren't something you can always control. Further to my shock and horror I just hoped something was being done. In the UK, the government recently consulted on “ online advertising programmes” - published march 2022 which covered the market in general but also the harms. Something that came up again was regulation of user generated content with indication of speeding the online safety bill to specifically cover this area to tackle fraudulent advertising

User generated content
is any content—text, videos, images, reviews, etc.—created by people, rather than brands.

The report also goes into detail on how different social apps use our data to personalise ads and what level of control consumers have on switching it on and off. No shock that the social apps owned by META: Facebook and Instagram give the least bit of user control. User generated content will continue to grow as a problem for everyday decisions and health based decisions.


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