The marketing of legal but harmful products – such as alcohol and tobacco – has always focused on our emotional desires. But it has now moved on to digital and social media, and this poses an increased threat to public health because both the products and the platform target our neurological response.
Promoting psychoactive products for profit by stimulating the neurotransmitters in the brain’s reward centers, or limbic structures, is called “limbic capitalism.”
But as limbic capitalism has gone digital over the past decade, marketers can now reach us on our smartphones as we use digital and social media platforms.
The algorithms that make us swipe and tap images and videos stimulates the dopamine drive in our brain that generates feelings of pleasure.
When used to promote potentially addictive products, it poses a serious threat to the public health and well-being of individuals, communities and populations. We know that alcohol and tobacco products are linked to a wide variety of diabetes damage and injuriesbut existing regulatory frameworks have nothing to say about these new forms of marketing.
Read more: Alcohol marketing has crossed borders and entered the metaverse – how do we regulate the new digital risk?
The addictive power of social media
We surveyed people aged 14 to 20 years in Aotearoa New Zealand about their experiences with alcohol and tobacco marketing on social media. While they appreciated the way social media allowed them to keep in touch with family and friends, they also frequently told us that they found these platforms addictive.
As a 20-year-old Māori/Pākehā man told us:
Content algorithms are addictive and predatory. Its only value lies in being able to communicate with friends and whānau.
An 18-year-old Pākehā woman said:
I hate the addiction it fuels, hate the competitive and comparative messages and hate the mental health issues it feeds into young people.
Participant responses highlight the addictive power of social media platforms and, despite their benefits, the price users pay to keep using them. These insights lead us to the claim that limbic capitalism is becoming.limbic platform capitalism”.
New public health challenges
This highlights the importance of understanding how much capacity we have to choose and control our mobile social media compulsions. Digital platform users have valuable insights into how marketers use social media to address their vulnerabilities while pursuing their own interests and social lives online.
The public health challenges of limbic platform capitalism are causing serious escalation. This is because marketing has become entrenched in these digital environments and has become difficult to identify and avoid. It became more powerful in its ability to attack our limbic system.
An example comes from Perth in Australia, where the alcohol industry used the global COVID pandemic as a marketing opportunity. The number of alcohol advertisements increased sharply on commonly used digital platforms. Users saw alcohol ads at least every 35 seconds, offering easy access to alcohol without leaving the house and promoting the use of alcohol to “feel better”.
Our participants reported an increase in vape and alcohol advertising on social media, including delivery offers, during lockdowns. When asked what changes they have seen in marketing since the lockdowns, they also showed awareness of the synergies between platforms and products, for example:
The way they promote their products. The sounds they use. Many songs have been made famous by (platform name). So many companies use the really famous music to help promote.
Need for regulation of social media marketing
Mobile social media is now central to young people’s professional and social identity, leisure and civic engagement. While actively using social media for their own purposes, they are simultaneously recruited as limbic platform and product consumers.
Platform algorithms are designed to generate, analyze and apply massive amounts of personalized data to tailor and tailor content streams to users, influencing their desires, behaviors and consumption, thus increasing profits.
Read more: NZ children see more than 40 ads for unhealthy products every day. It’s time to change the marketing rules
These developments and their consequences for public health require immediate attention. Algorithmic models intensify targeting users at times, places, and contexts when they are most susceptible. Home delivery of alcohol in the evening is an example.
This can affect purchasing decisions, potentially harming vulnerable consumers and exacerbating health inequalities. Such commercialized algorithm-driven systems raise serious questions for health policy makers public oversight of the algorithms. Should we ban the promotion and marketing of unhealthy but legal products on limbic platforms?
Scholarships that explore mobile social media landscapes are essential to inform public health and health promotion research agendas, initiatives and policies. We urgently need regulation for this new marketing era, in which both commodities and the popular platforms on which they are marketed are dynamic, participatory, data-driven and limbic.