How vaping companies exploit Instagram for youth-oriented marketing?
E-cigarettes are highly addictive nicotine products with unclear health impacts, particularly on youth. Instagram is a visual social media platform which is wildly popular among adolescents. Researchers interested in public health at Aalto University in Finland studied how vaping is represented on the platform. By using artificial intelligence, they were able to analyse hundreds of thousands of posts from a 6-month period last year, and found that a large portion of posts are promoting controversial flavoured e-liquids to young audiences.
The research analyzed Instagram posts shared between June to November 2019 with a caption “#vaping”. ‘We knew this would be predominantly promotional material,’ said Dr. Aqdas Malik from the Department of Computer Science who studies social media and user behaviors with a specific interest in online discourse about public health ‘but we were interested in what types of images these would be, and who was posting them.’ In the end, the research team generated a database of over half a million pictures, which were sorted using a neural network, and subsequently grouped the images into categories representing similar features.
What the neural network showed was that over 40% of the images – the largest proportion out of the 6 categories – were of e-liquids or e-juices. These were predominantly posted by Instagram profiles listed as business accounts. The prominence of posts about e-liquids is interesting from a public health perspective because, although many e-cigarette brands market themselves as “smoking cessation” devices, it has been shown by other studies that flavoured liquids are strongly linked to adolescent users taking up vaping in the first place. The USA banned the sale of flavoured liquids at the beginning of this year specifically to help tackle the huge growth of teenage vaping, and other countries are looking to do the same.
‘While print and broadcast media has clear rules and regulations about what can and cannot be advertised, and what constitutes advertising, we don’t see this on social media,’ said Dr. Malik. ‘I believe we need stricter laws to regulate the visibility of various substances - including vaping products on these networks. Any 12-year-old with a phone can easily create a social media account and bypass the age-rules for seeing what’s posted there, and the potential health implications are significant.’ 60% of all the posts using the hashtag #vaping were from business accounts. Over 70% of Instagram users are under 35, and over 35% of its users are under 24 years old. ‘It’s a huge grey area in terms of advertising regulations, especially regarding promotion towards younger audiences’ Dr. Malik said.
The research has been published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics, and is available to read online.
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