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Source: Massey University

The research will explore and analyse influencer marketing on social platforms such as Instagram. Image credit: Freepik.

New funding announced today by the New Zealand’s Health Research Council will see the University lead a two-year investigation into the extent and practices involved in using social media influencers to promote unhealthy products to youth.

Senior Lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies Dr Ian Goodwin will lead the study looking into the use of celebrities and other social media influencers to feature products such as cigarettes, vaping devices and alcohol.

Most countries have regulations regarding how products with known adverse health effects, such as tobacco, can be marketed via traditional advertising channels such as print or television. However, the use of social media influencers is far less controlled and audiences frequently have less ability to separate advertising from genuine product recommendations.

In late 2018, a two-year study in the United States found more than 100 social media campaigns by multinational tobacco giants secretly partnering with social media influencers to post images of cigarettes and smoking as part of their marketing strategies across 40 countries.

“Social media has radically altered how corporations market unhealthy products to young people. Social media influencers embody these shifts, and yet we know little about the nature or extent of their practices, particularly in targeting the youth of Aotearoa New Zealand” says Dr Goodwin.

“Influencers are part of covert, under the radar marketing strategies unique to social media. These blur lines between user-generated and commercial content, making existing public health marketing regulations ineffective.”

Focusing on alcohol, tobacco, and vaping, the new research intends to use innovative methodologies and cutting-edge software to explore and analyse influencer marketing on social platforms such as Instagram.

This exploratory research hopes to inform potentially transformative national and global debates about the regulation of digital marketing and policy changes needed to protect public health.

Dr Goodwin’s study is one of 17 Explorer Grants announced today by the Health Research Council worth a combined total of $2.55 million. The grants support innovative and transformative research, and are an example of cutting-edge, higher-risk investment.