Exposing digital advertising of harmful industries

The unhealthy food and drink industry uses targeted digital marketing tactics, including activities, images, characters, and prizes that appeal to young people, and are available in digital spaces young people inhabit.

This marketing works. Exposure to marketing of harmful products increases young people’s brand awareness, loyalty, preference, and consumption of products which contribute to Noncommunicable diseases, obesity and poor mental health. We want our young people to safely and actively participate in their digital world without being exposed to the marketing of such harmful products.

Through CivVic Labs, startups will develop prototypes that uncover and expose invasive marketing practices of harmful industries, particularly the ultra-processed food industry. Harmful industries are the brands, companies or organisations who profit from products that are harmful to health and wellbeing (e.g. e-cigarettes, gambling, alcohol, ultra-processed food and sugary drink). Ultra-processed foods include those that are high in sugar, fat and/or salt, and sugary drinks.

CivVic Labs is an opportunity for new startups to uncover and expose predatory marketing practices of harmful industries that could generate public and political support to develop legal and policy solutions.

We’re asking:

How might we better understand and expose digital advertising of harmful industries that impacts young people?

The Problem

There is an abundance of advertising online from harmful industries, in particular ultra-processed food companies both deliberately targeting young people, and in settings likely to be viewed by young people.

Marketers use a variety of tactics to target young people, including targeting young people on mobile apps and social media, using cartoon characters and toy giveaways. But the extent and detail of those tactics is not abundantly clear, and new tactics are being used all the time.

Young people are interacting with digital marketing from ultra-processed food companies daily, often without parent supervision. They spend an increasing amount of time online, especially on social media, 81% of young people aged 5-14 play video games, while young people under 18 make up 22% of all gamers in Australia.

And young people’s use of digital technology has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, advertising via digital media has also increased over time, providing a relatively inexpensive 10 advertising option with sophisticated targeting strategies.

With one in four Australian children currently living with overweight or obesity, these tactics are effective in driving sales and in turn, driving poorer health outcomes for Australian young people.

The Call to Startups

Our long-term vision is that Australian young people are free to enjoy digital technology without being exposed to marketing from harmful industries, particularly the ultra-processed food industry. This includes marketing that deliberately targets young people, and that which is used in settings likely to be viewed by young people.

Young people’s digital participation impacts their health and wellbeing, and we are looking for startups to develop solutions that inform future government action. We’re keen to know:

  • The digital marketing strategies that harmful industries are using to target young people, directly or indirectly?
  • How can we learn what digital marketing tactics the harmful industries, particularly the ultra-processed food industry, are planning to use next?
  • How can we better anticipate emerging tactics to be on the front foot with proposing policy and regulations to protect young people?
  • How can we better understand the online environment young people are experiencing to inform policy action?
  • What tools can be used for consistent and ongoing monitoring of evolving, invasive digital marketing tactics, to demonstrate the need for common sense regulation?
  • Which industries or companies are using the most predatory tactics, and where and how are young people being exposed to this marketing?

The regulations currently in place in Australia to protect young people from harmful digital marketing are different across industries and inadequately protect young people under 18. There are voluntary and self-regulating industry codes that apply to the ultra-processed food industry, including the Children’s Advertising Code; the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children (QSRI), and the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) developed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council; and retailers and the food and drink industries have developed their own codes.

However, these codes do little to meaningfully protect children, and there is no government regulation in Australia that protects children from the harmful digital marketing for unhealthy foods and drinks that they are exposed to. The Australian Government, recognising the problem, announced in the May 2022 budget that they would be funding a feasibility study of introducing regulation similar to that soon to be implemented in the UK.

The limited framework governing the digital advertising of harmful products that children are exposed to is industry-designed and industry-led. And it may be failing our young people.

This is an opportunity to design a sustainable solution that brings to light gaps and weaknesses in the current framework which could be harming Australian young people.

  • Offline marketing practices (eg. Billboards, television, point of sale etc) – this challenge is focused on the digital space. Harmful impacts of digital marketing in general. We are only interested in identifying and monitoring tactics and practices of harmful industries, particularly the unhealthy ultra-processed food industry. Education materials for young people and parents, that teaches about predatory digital marketing tactics of harmful industries.

  • Stage: The best applicants will have an idea or solution that can be refined during the pre-accelerator, informed by VicHealth experts, and where a prototype may be built. You will come with a unique and creative way of thinking about the issue. Solution: Over the six-week pre-accelerator, selected applicants will develop a tool that uncovers and exposes digital marketing tactics that Australian young people are subjected to.

  • This challenge has two key audiences: children and parents/families. Children are targeted by pervasive and covert tactics of these companies, many before they are old enough to have agency or an understanding of what they’re being shown.  These marketing tactics undermine parents and make it very challenging for them to provide their children with healthy diet. Online marketing tactics will often target children directly without parent knowledge of what they are seeing.


Book in time with CivVic GM, Calvin Frith here.

Applications close Monday 30 May.