Digital advertising is more pervasive than ever, and it may affect our physical and mental health
Tobacco advertising was running rife in the 1980s. On the drive to work, you’d be…
Tobacco advertising was running rife in the 1980s.
On the drive to work, you’d be confronted by billboards at every turn. Turn on the radio, and you’d be hammered with messages persuading you to buy tobacco.
And once you returned home, your favourite TV shows and sports events were littered with ads selling these harmful products.
But by the late 1980s, the advertising landscape had changed in Australia.
In Victoria, the Tobacco Act of 1987 banned outdoor tobacco advertising, starting with the removal of half of Victoria’s cigarette billboards by 1989.
Cigarette taxes were used to fund anti-smoking campaigns and buy out tobacco sponsorship of sport and the arts, and by 1995 they’d vanished completely from the chests of AFL players, cultural events and major sporting championships.
Instead, the promotion of these harmful products was replaced with health messages: billboards on Victorian roads said things like “this billboard has given up smoking, and feels great”.
This shift had a huge ongoing impact on our health: the adult daily smoking rate in Australia has almost halved since 1995 and most workplaces and public spaces are now smoke-free.
While difficult to achieve politically, back then it was a relatively simple advertising landscape.
Television and radio were king. Static billboards were about as sophisticated as outdoor media got.
Everyone experienced the same advertising landscape — a family would see the very same billboard from their car window as they drove by.
Since then, the world has changed.
Advertising has become digitalised, with screens now on most corners, bus shelters and many walkways allowing more engaging content and videos.
But probably the biggest change is the rise of the digital realm — a “world” or space in which most of us spend, on average, nearly seven hours each day.
This personalised space provides an entirely new landscape for advertising, and a significant new challenge to our health.
Your attention is their product
Unlike the world I grew up in, advertising is no longer focused on buses, streets and highways. In the digital world, marketers have an entirely new environment to push products, and raise profits.
Apps and technology platforms build online ecosystems that aim to lure and keep you engaged. While sharing photos or making friends might appear to be their mission, your attention is their product.
The longer the platforms can keep you engaged through any means possible — whether it’s outraging you with confronting content, or delivering a dopamine hit through likes and new connections — the longer they’re able to sell your attention to third-party companies wanting to make a sale.
In a 1980s world, the equivalent would be an organisation doing all they can to subtly entice you to drive on their highway for as long as possible in order to pass more of their billboard advertising space.
The product is not the road, the product is you.
Your data is the currency
By the age of just 13, the average Australian child will have had 72 million data points collected about them: everything from what they like, to who they hang out with, to where they live and go to school, and how they feel.
This data is gathered with every “like” and interaction online and stored in massive servers to build a precise and detailed understanding of every one of us.
In a digital world where you are the product, the currency traded and capitalised is your own personal data — and that of your kids.
This enormous amount of data is sold to advertisers, to make sure that every dollar spent on marketing goods, experiences or products is as timely, targeted and effective as possible.
It’s the ad for your favourite chocolate bar after a long Monday as you stand cold and tired on the train platform next to a vending machine. Or the sudden appearance of a “buy now” button for 30-minute alcohol delivery on the day of a sports event.
We live worlds apart
In the days of a roadside billboard, parents knew what advertising their children saw and could have some control over the level and quality of exposure.
But the billboard is now in our pockets — targeted to each of us, and informed by a bank of our own powerful, personal data.
Today as I travel along the freeway with my nieces, or as we sit on the couch together, we’re in completely different digital worlds.
I have little control over what they see, and with significant amounts of their social lives and schooling now online, I have few options to protect them.
This is because of what’s called “dark marketing” — where advertisements are targeted to a select group, and if you’re not in that group, you don’t see them.
The result is that we no longer share the same advertising landscape as our kids, and that they can be seeing a completely different world from us.
At VicHealth, we worked alongside Monash University and The University of Queensland to look at how alcohol, unhealthy food, sugary drinks and gambling products are promoted to young people online. The results alarmed us.
The 204 participants aged 16 to 25 years sent the researchers 5,169 examples of unhealthy food, alcohol, and gambling advertising they saw on their social media feeds. This all happened in a two-week window.
And on top of this, 54 participants aged 16 and 17 years captured 104 alcohol ads, 50 gambling ads, and 737 unhealthy food ads.
Time to act
When it comes to digital marketing, society has a lot of catching up to do. Most of our laws were written in a bygone age of newspapers and billboards.
We need to better understand these technologies and the effects they are having on our physical and mental health — and in particular the health of young people.
Just as governments of the late 1980s took decisive action to protect populations from billboards pushing products known to cause harm, it’s high time we consider the potent and pervasive “billboards” now in our pockets.
Now’s the time for higher and legislated standards for the marketing of harmful products in our digital world, as we did against the tobacco industry four decades ago.