Big companies used COVID-19 as an opportunity to market their unhealthy products

COVID-9 lockdown hit us all in many different ways. People experienced a lot of psychological distress due to being stuck in their own homes for months without being able to enjoy their usual socializing activities. Now scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that brands used this as an opportunity to advertise their less than healthy products.

Companies promoted their super unhealthy products by adapting their marketing strategies to the new COVID-19 reality. Image credit: Matthew Bellemare via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unhealthy food, beverages, alcohol, tobacco and other kinds of products grew in popularity in the midst of the global pandemic. And it is easy to see why – people were stuck at home and were looking for at least some kind of ways to entertain themselves. Studies have shown that at least in some countries smoking declined slightly, but binge drinking grew during the lockdown. The problem is that companies promoted this kind of unhealthy behaviour, which is linked to rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – heart disease, some cancers, respiratory disease and diabetes.

Just like other businesses, producers of these unhealthy food products adapted quickly to the changing conditions during the COVID-19 lockdown. They launched a variety of different strategies in order to promote their products, which, in turn, promoted harmful behaviour. Those strategies include tailored marketing stunts and the fostering of partnerships with governments, international agencies and NGOs. Scientists discovered this by gathering and analysing nearly 800 examples of marketing, lobbying and public relations tactics from more than 90 countries. 

Dr Rob Ralston, co-author of the study, said: “Mapping this activity is vital if we are to shape a fine-tuned response to COVID-19 and at the same time avoid further exacerbating the pre-existing NCD epidemic”.

How companies did that? Well, scientists noted that some fast food chains donated a lot of burgers and other kinds of food to nurses and then bragged about it on social media. This kind of behaviour was considered as acceptable by most, because it was viewed as a way to show gratitude to healthcare workers and inform the public about this opportunity. Other companies were offering free face masks with a meal. And then there were those that were posting various messages on their products hoping that some people are going to take pictures of them or at least consider the company socially responsible.

We are consumers and companies want to reach us in any way possible. And it is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is important that you realize what intentions are hidden behind all of those social campaigns. It is marketing, not some kind of genuine interest in the wellbeing of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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