Junk food brands capitalising on lockdown

10 May 2020

Public health groups criticise companies’ opportunistic marketing during COVID-19 pandemic

Public health groups have slammed fast food corporations for their shameless marketing targeting people in isolation, health workers and bored kids during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

With people stuck at home, the junk food industry has been quick to capitalise on the pandemic, adapting their marketing strategies to cash in on isolation and push their unhealthy products on Australians.  

Domino’s Australia is promoting “5 reasons to eat pizza in isolation.” Red Rooster is featuring ‘social distancing’ in their promotions. McDonald’s is encouraging customers to pick up essentials like bread and milk, likely with a follow up question, ‘would you like fries with that?’.

LiveLighter®’s Campaign Manager and Dietitian Alison McAleese said that, at a time when people should be maintaining good health, it is irresponsible for companies to exploit people’s boredom and isolation as a marketing tactic.  

“We are being asked to stay home in order to protect our health. The heavy promotion of energy-dense food with little to no nutritional value is hardly the type of marketing we need at this time.” 

With Australian consumers representing a captive market due to their current isolation, Ms McAleese urged people not to be taken in by advertising targeting their uncertainty and boredom.

“This is a difficult time for many, with some turning to unhealthy foods for comfort or out of boredom, making them primed for this type of marketing.  With increasing evidence showing excess weight can be a risk factor for more severe COVID-19 complications we want people to understand that maintaining a nutritious diet is key to staying well and fighting illness.”

In addition, a number of unhealthy food companies have been offering free unhealthy drinks or food to healthcare workers, as well as showing healthcare and other essential workers consuming their products in their marketing campaigns.        

Krispy Kreme’s ‘Doughforce project’ is delivering doughnuts to hospitals. Domino’s Australia’s current ads on social media and TV feature a message from its CEO stating “We’re playing our part to keep Australians safely fed.”

The Obesity Policy Coalition’s Executive Manager Jane Martin said this apparent altruism was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to build brand awareness and increase sales.

“These corporations claim to be supporting those fighting this pandemic on the front line. Healthcare staff need nutritious food to sustain them and help them fight illness. If these companies truly wanted to care for healthcare workers, there are many other ways they could help that don’t involve providing such unhealthy foods.”

Ms Martin also slammed companies marketing directly to children, capitalising on the increased screen time at home, marketing their unhealthy products as a way to fight boredom.

Krispy Kreme is promoting doughnuts as a multitasking option while playing computer games, while Skittles is promoting an art competition (using Skittles in the design) to combat boredom.

“These companies know they now have a captive and impressionable audience and are taking full advantage.  We know that marketing influences what kids eat and what they pester their parents for,” Ms Martin said.

“It’s unethical for fast food corporations to leverage the current pandemic and subsequent lockdown to push their marketing agenda, encouraging children to consume heavily processed, energy dense foods.”

Ms Martin urged governments to promote healthy eating as part of their marketing campaign around staying safe during the pandemic.

She also emphasised that governments need to hold these companies to account for their shameless marketing tactics.

“The industry is getting away with its blatant exploitation of the community’s vulnerability, uncertainty and boredom during the pandemic.”

“It is naïve to trust the very companies pushing their unhealthy products to behave responsibly. We need governments to hold industry to account and set higher standards for how unhealthy products are marketed in our community.”