Target Marketing Tactics

Research shows that children and adolescents are more vulnerable to marketing’s influence than adults.

Marketers Bag of Tricks

Food and beverage marketing has a tremendous impact on what young people eat and drink, and marketers use this knowledge to reach kids at a young age, potentially shaping their eating habits for life. Now, with a growing amount of marketing dollars being pumped into digital venues such as social networks, online games, and virtual worlds, food and beverage companies are able to reach kids and teens in more ways and in more places than ever — often without parents knowing.

Using a sweeping array of manipulative and deceptive digital marketing techniques, marketers are able to target children in cutting-edge ways and get them not just to purchase unhealthy products but also to engage with them — to bond with brands on a deeply personal and emotional level.

At a time when childhood obesity and nutrition-related diseases are on the rise — over a quarter of 12- to 19-year-olds now have prediabetes — this threat to youth health and wellness is a cause for concern to health professionals, advocates, parents and policymakers. These concerns are heightened for youth of color, who tend to be targeted more aggressively and are at higher risk for obesity than their white counterparts. Marketing industry leaders are proud of what they call “multicultural marketing” because it includes communities that have been historically overlooked or omitted from media representation; however, they are not accounting for the marketing’s harmful health effects.

Digital food and beverage marketing also raises serious issues of privacy and fairness and exposes the need to monitor and report campaigns that violate laws against deceptive marketing practices. Read on to learn more about specific tactics food and beverage companies use to target youth of color with unhealthy products. For more detailed examples, download the latest report from the Center for Digital Democracy.


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Mass surveillance and data collection

Data collection is at the core of contemporary digital marketing. Advertisers and marketers collect and access unlimited amounts of information on consumers — including highly sensitive data — and use it to market to individuals wherever they go, online and off. This technique allows food and beverage marketers to track user behavior 24/7, often without their knowledge or consent. Powerful analytical software mines data from social media and other online applications, allowing marketers to analyze behavior patterns, create profiles of young users, identify which ones are the most likely to consume unhealthy products, and refine their strategies accordingly. In other words, all marketers are Big Data companies now. Platforms like Facebook and Google wield especially enormous influence and power through mass data collection. Learn more >


Data modeling methods allow companies to make predictions about online users’ personal attributes, psychological profiles, and behaviors. Companies draw from an expanding arsenal of advertising technology to identify, profile, and segment consumers into highly granular categories. They can then exclude or target individuals and groups and engage with them across multiple websites and devices. This hyperpersonalized approach to data analysis allows companies to maximize engagement — and profit. However, this business model also leads to discrimination, disparate treatment, and inequitable outcomes. Learn more >

Artificial intelligence (AI) and manipulating the subconscious

In recent years, the advertising industry has drawn from methods typically used by scientists to research, diagnose and treat illnesses and adapted them for marketing purposes. This technique taps into consumer emotions to foster brand engagement. Through the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the latest insights from behavioral economics, companies have created a host of techniques to maximize their ability to influence consumer behaviors. The goal is to penetrate both the conscious and subconscious mind to better understand the brain’s response to advertising in hopes of circumventing rational decision-making among consumers. Doing so allows marketers to foster impulsive purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fats. Learn more >

Real-time, location-based, and mobile targeting

Through real-time testing and measurement, advertisers can determine how a marketing campaign or e-commerce practice affects consumer purchasing behavior, enabling companies to maximize and fine tune their techniques with unprecedented precision on an ongoing basis. Coupled with geolocation technologies and near-ubiquity of mobile devices (more than 240 million people use smartphones in the U.S. alone), marketers have extraordinary ability to track young people’s movements and activities throughout their daily lives. For example, fast-food restaurants can deliver coupons to student cell phones, enticing them with offers for free food as they leave school, and soda companies can precisely target neighborhoods where young people are more likely to buy full-calorie soft drinks. Learn more >

Infiltrating social networks

Social networks are among the most popular digital media available to youth. Teens in particular often use platforms such as Instagram and TikTok to explore their identity and interact with friends. By penetrating social networks, marketers are able to survey and track users’ online conversations and behaviors without their awareness. Marketers then use this information to identify sources of peer influence and even insert themselves into online interactions to sway youth purchasing behavior. Influencers often share sponsored content without indicating that they are being paid to post images and videos that promote a particular brand. Learn more >

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Immersive environments and gaming

Food and beverage marketers use immersive online environments including gaming, state-of-the-art animation, high-definition video, and virtual realities to reduce consumers’ conscious attention to marketing techniques and foster impulsive behaviors. This technique creates a three-dimensional experience, surrounding individuals with realistic sounds and images. The goal is to blur the line between the digital and real world and make it hard for users to distinguish between marketing and other content. Online gamers and fans are considered prime targets for snack, soft drink, and fast food brands, all products that lend themselves to uninterrupted game play and spectatorship. Retailers even offer purchasing incentives to gamers through “loot boxes” and gaming currencies. These incentives mimic the rewards programs (like digital coupons, contests, and sweepstakes) that adults shoppers encounter when grocery shopping. Learn more >

Online and streaming video

Online and streaming video have been on the rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people are avid users, accessing video on their mobile devices, gaming consoles, personal computers, and online connections to their TV sets. New video ad formats allow virtual brand images to be inserted into the content and tailored to specific viewers. “Where one customer sees a Coca-Cola on the table, the other sees green tea.” explained a marketing executive. “Where one customer sees a bag of chips, another sees a muesli bar… in the exact same scene.” Learn more >


Although targeted junk food marketing to children is rampant domestically, multinational food companies hawk their wares globally. Many countries are taking action to put a stop to these harmful practices. For example: