Food Marketing on Video Games Tied to Teen Eating Behavior

Food and drink advertisements on video game live-streaming platforms (VGLSPs) such as Twitch are associated with a greater preference for and consumption of products high in fat, salt, and/or sugar (HFSS) among teenagers, according to research presented on May 12, 2024, at the 31st European Congress on Obesity in Venice, Italy.

The presentation by Rebecca Evans, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, included findings from three recently published studies and a submitted randomized controlled trial. At the time of the research, the top VGLSPs globally were Twitch (with 77% of the market share by hours watched), YouTube Gaming (15%), and Facebook Gaming Live (7%).

“Endorsement deals for prominent streamers on Twitch can be worth many millions of dollars, and younger people, who are attractive to advertisers, are moving away from television to these more interactive forms of entertainment,” Evans said. “These deals involve collaborating with brands and promoting their products, including foods that are high in fats, salt, and/or sugar.”

To delve more deeply into the extent and consequences of VGLSP advertising for HFSS, the researchers first analyzed 52 hour-long Twitch videos uploaded to gaming platforms by three popular influencers. They found that food cues appeared at an average rate of 2.6 per hour, and the average duration of each cue was 20 minutes.

Most cues (70.7%) were for branded HFSS (80.5%), led by energy drinks (62.4%). Most (97.7%) were not accompanied by an advertising disclosure. Most food cues were either product placement (44.0%) and looping banners (40.6%) or features such as tie-ins, logos, or offers. Notably, these forms of advertising are always visible on the video game screen, so viewers cannot skip over them or close them.

Next, the team did a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the relationship between exposure to digital game-based or influencer food marketing with food-related outcomes. They found that young people were twice as likely to prefer foods displayed via digital game-based marketing, and that influencer and digital game-based marketing was associated with increased HFSS food consumption of about 37 additional calories in one sitting.

Researchers then surveyed 490 youngsters (mean age, 16.8 years; 70%, female) to explore associations between recall of food marketing of the top VGLSPs and food-related outcomes. Recall was associated with more positive attitudes towards HFSS foods and, in turn, the purchase and consumption of the marketed HFSS foods.

In addition, the researchers conducted a lab-based randomized controlled trial to explore associations between HFSS food marketing via a mock Twitch stream and subsequent snack intake. A total of 91 youngsters (average age, 18 years; 69% women) viewed the mock stream, which contained either an advertisement (an image overlaid on the video featuring a brand logo and product) for an HFSS food, or a non-branded food. They were then offered a snack. Acute exposure to HFSS food marketing was not associated with immediate consumption, but more habitual use of VGLSPs was associated with increased intake of the marketed snack.

The observational studies could not prove cause and effect, and may not be generalizable to all teens, the authors acknowledged. They also noted that some of the findings are based on self-report surveys, which can lead to recall bias and may have affected the results.

Nevertheless, Evans said, “The high level of exposure to digital marketing of unhealthy food could drive excess calorie consumption and weight gain, particularly in adolescents who are more susceptible to advertising. It is important that digital food marketing restrictions encompass innovative and emerging digital media such as VGLSPs.”

The research formed Evans’ PhD work, which is funded by the University of Liverpool. Evans and colleagues declared no conflicts of interest.

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