Behind the Screens – The Unseen Marketing

by Hanna Seglem Tangen

What do we know about what youth see on their mobile phone? Our mobile phones and social media are highly private and mostly for good reasons. It is our own alternative and digital world. Youth spend hours and hours daily on their mobile phones exploring this world. Unfortunately, there are some cons of this privacy. Our data is not private to commercial actors, and our time and following of different profiles on social media is a part of a huge digital economy. As we do not see what other people see on social media, it is not that easy to regulate unhealthy content, such as the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks. Furthermore, children often use consumer goods to belong in a group (Pugh, 2011). This phenomenon was demonstrated last summer when popular YouTubers Logan Paul and KSI promoted the sports drink PRIME Hydration in Norway. Thousands of children turned up to the event and the sports drink was flying of the shelves for a long period of time (Eriksen et al., 2023). The sports drink was primarily promoted in social media.

Icons of a phone and people analyzing the content on the phone
credit: pexels | WebTechExperts

Food Environments

Lately, the term Food Environments has been coming up as a relevant subject. From the Public Health Institute of Norway comes the following definition: “Food environments are the physical, economic, political, and sociocultural contexts in which people interact with the food system when making choices about acquiring, preparing, and consuming food. This includes both physical and digital/virtual environments.” (Uldahl & Torheim, 2023). This also means that the foods and drinks we see on social media are a part of our Food Environment. Studies do indicate that advertising for unhealthy food and drink can influence children and adolescents’ choices, as well as change their attitudes and preferences towards different foods and drinks (Buchanan et al., 2018; Cairns et al., 2013; Coates et al., 2019; Harris et al., 2021; Kucharczuk et al., 2022; Lykke & Selberg, 2022; Mc Carthy et al., 2022; Sadeghirad et al., 2016; Smith et al., 2019).

Somebody taking a picture of plates of foods with a phone
credit: pexels | Roman Odintsov

Marketing for unhealthy foods and drinks in Norway

The Norwegian government is now planning to implement a new legislation to regulate marketing towards children and youth under the age of 18 (Innst. 398 S (2022-2023), 2023). However, our understanding of the amount of marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks on social media remains limited because the research methods are still insufficient. Social media platforms are rapidly changing alongside the forms of marketing. This makes it hard to follow the evolution of marketing on social media based on the existing methods. Formerly, my colleague Alexander Schjøll and I explored how much marketing a selection of influencers posted on social media over a period of three months (Tangen & Schjøll, 2023). Our findings revealed that nearly a quarter (24%) of all posts were marketing. The most frequently marketed categories were food and drinks, primarily sports and energy drinks, followed by clothing and accessories. Still, these results can just indicate the current situation, not generalize anything. Other Norwegian studies have shown different types of marketing to be more common (Retriever, 2022; Steinnes & Haugrønning, 2020).

Influencer promoting a drink
credit: pexels | ivan samk

In our study, even though we looked at popular influencers, we do not know what children and adolescents see on their own phones. We could not look into the ads, both traditional and personalized, that are displayed to each person based on their algorithms. Similar studies to ours have been done, but to this author’s knowledge, no other studies have been able to measure marketing in children’s and adolescent’s mobiles in a satisfying and precise way.

Influencer eating a slice of pizza
credit: pexels | ivan samk

Making the unseen marketing visible

Therefore, we are currently working on a project to monitor marketing on social media in cooperation with WHO and The Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Adolescents aged 13-18 are going to download an application developed by WHO. This application will monitor and capture screenshots from Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube when our respondents use it. In this way we can capture and count the real exposure of marketing adolescents witness on social media. SIFO researchers Steinnes & Haugrønning (2020) conducted a study with a former version of the application, where the initial version processed the content of photos and returned text-based data. Their study provided promising results for further development and use of this method. Now, the application is further developed to take screenshots, sort out sensitive images by using AI and includes an analyzing tool who tags brands and commercials. Our continuation of Steinnes & Haugrønning’s (2020) method and a newer version of the application will provide us with new insights into unseen marketing on social media and youths digital food environments.

children sitting looking at a phone
credit: pexels | katerina holmes


Hanna Seglem Tangen is a research assistant at Consumption Research Norway (SIFO), belonging in the research group Sustainable Textile and Food Consumption. Hanna’s research interests include sustainable food consumption, public health, advertising and marketing, politics, policy, and evaluation. She applies with both qualitative and quantitative methods in her work.


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