Background

Food companies are increasingly advertising on social media, yet the effects of these ads on adolescents’ preferences are unknown. This study examined adolescents’ preferences for Instagram food ads compared to print ads, and identified which ad features most heavily influenced their preferences.

Methods

In this study, 832 adolescents (ages 13-17 years) completed an online survey in which they were randomly assigned to rate different food ads.Adolescents first viewed 8 pairs of unlabeled Instagram and print food ads and were asked to identify the Instagram ad. Next, adolescents rated ads in one of two conditions: 1) Instagram and print food ads where the Instagram logos were removed (i.e., “unlabeled ad condition”); or 2) Instagram and print food ads where Instagram logos were Photoshopped onto all ads (i.e., “Instagram label ad condition”). They rated ads on: trendiness, artistic appeal, likeability, perceived deliciousness of the product, and purchase intentions. Finally, they Instagram ads varying in the number of 'Likes' where ads: 1) did not feature comments from Instagram users; or 2) featured comments from Instagram users.

Results

Adolescents performed worse than chance when identifying Instagram ads (p<0.0001). Adolescents preferred the Instagram ads to the print ads on 3 of 5 outcomes (i.e., trendiness, p=0.001; artistic appeal, p=0.001; liking, p=0.001). In contrast, adolescents in the “Instagram label condition” rated those same ads similarly on 4 out of 5 dimensions. Finally, they rated Instagram food ads with medium or high numbers of “likes” higher than they rated ads with low numbers of “likes” (p=0.001 and p=0.002, respectively).

Conclusions

Instagram food ads are highly appealing to adolescents, and the effectiveness of Instagram food ads may be compounded by adolescents’ limited ability to identify Instagram ads as actual advertisements. This potent form of advertising may undermine efforts to reduce the negative influence of food ads on young people’s dietary habits.