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Shining a light on dark marketing

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Gambling ads on billboards alongside freeways and on bus shelters. Shouty, often celebrity-led campaigns on free-to-air TV – an average of 948 ads a day in Victoria in 2021 according to Nielsen data. None of us can miss them and so they can be policed.

But an unregulated form of short-lived advertising goes straight to mobile devices and is not readily available for scrutiny.

The so-called ‘dark marketing’ of harmful and addictive products such as gambling, alcohol and unhealthy foods is the subject of a recent Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education report, Advertisements on digital platforms: How transparent and observable are they?

Transparent? No. Observable? Only to those who are targeted, but generally not to ‘researchers, civil society and governments,’ the report notes.

The targeting of young people

Members of the research team also partnered with VicHealth and 204 participants aged 16–24 years for another study that has shone a light on the marketing of harmful products specifically to young people in this way.

‘The study was shaped by the ads young people received and sent us screenshots of,’ explains University of Queensland Associate Professor Nicholas Carah.

Facebook uses a range of data points to determine the interests of their users through a tracking pixel that is embedded in millions of websites. The study explains that ‘Meta’s advertising model is tuned to “learn” predispositions toward the consumption of harmful and addictive commodities and reinforce them by assigning “interests” related to those products’.

21 per cent were deemed to have an ‘interest’ in gambling.

Study participants shared with the researchers the information that Facebook had created about them in its advertising model.

On average, 194 advertisers uploaded data about the young participants, of whom 21 per cent were deemed to have an ‘interest’ in gambling. Of the 54 participants aged under 18, 39.6 per cent reported receiving gambling and sports betting ads regularly, while 24.4 per cent received them sometimes. Only 19 per cent never received them.

Peer network comparisons

While psychographics are used by marketers in conjunction with demographics to target people based on their perceived beliefs, values and aspirations, Carah sees the advertising model as simply a ‘blunt correlation tool.

‘It compares your profile to the profiles of other users in your peer network,’ he says, ‘and seems to show that drinkers and gamblers look the same online.’

This represents a particularly concerning confluence for gambling harm, with platforms able to determine when a user is experiencing a low mood. The research report shows that some alcohol ads offer a ‘solution’ through promotional messages. For example, it reported on ‘a one-hour use of Facebook and Instagram on a Friday night [when] one user received 107 advertisements promoting alcohol products, including promoted messages about using alcohol to cope and feel better’.

With one-click-connection ads servicing and further cultivating instant gratification – ‘Shop now!’ or ‘Bet now!’ – ‘it really cements that better observability and systematic regulation are required and overdue,’ continues Carah.

… gambling ad targeting was ‘so gendered’.

The researchers found that gambling ad targeting was ‘so gendered’, with young men the focus of saturation levels of sports betting ads. Young females were more likely to receive ads for Keno, The Lott and regional race meetings.

‘As much as sports betting companies want to encourage people who gamble to gamble more, they also want to build their markets and social acceptance, and establish gambling norms,’ says Carah.

‘It’s not necessarily about getting women to gamble but to think that gambling is cool and normal so that it’s more socially acceptable for men to gamble. It socialises it for men through women.’

Lack of transparency

While content from the seven major digital platforms was considered in both the research and the study – Facebook, Instagram, Google search, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok – only the first two, both under the Meta umbrella, have a public archive of their ads.

However, only ‘live’ ads that are part of a current campaign can be independently observed; all record of them disappears when an advertising campaign ends.

Digital platforms … collect the data required to evaluate the effectiveness of campaigns.

That amounts to a 100 per cent transparency failure rate.

But, of course, the data on targeting, spend and reach is available. Digital platforms don’t just place ads; they collect the data required to evaluate the effectiveness of campaigns.

On all the digital platforms except TikTok, ‘some information is provided on targeting, spend, and reach for political advertisements,’ explains the research. And while it is very limited, it shows there is no technical reason this data can’t be captured and made publicly available.

‘In the absence of regulatory requirements for transparency,’ explains the research, the platforms simply don’t choose to share it.

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