Fast-food flood shows Covid-Washing in action

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The ethics of ‘Covid-washing’ advertising tactics which began in 2020 are being called into question by new research and Health Coalition Aotearoa Board Chair Professor Boyd Swinburn.

A study by the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, in partnership with Healthy Auckland Together, revealed 27 per cent of social media posts from fast-food outlets referenced the pandemic in their marketing messages.

Posts referencing the pandemic spiked just as Level 4 restrictions were about to lift in April 2020, and the same playbook has been used again during this lockdown.

“Covid-washing is a marketing tactic where brands align their products with the pandemic response in a bid to enhance their image,” one of the study’s author from The University of Auckland Dr Sarah Gerritsen said.

“It preys on loneliness, anxiety and the desire the help our communities during the lockdown.

“The encouragement of overconsumption of unhealthy products for comfort and support is part of this strategy. So too are sharing photos of front-line workers receiving branded products. This is happening globally as brands capitalise on the pandemic for profit, at the expense of our health.”

Gerritsen’s study showed brands engaged in Covid-washing included Domino’s Pizza, McDonalds, and V energy drinks, which used memes of the Prime Minister’s 1pm briefings to sell sugary beverages. McDonalds even used Father’s Day ‘vouchers’ akin to an IOU – a tactic which involves children via their families.

Professor Swinburn says he is concerned about children’s exposure in particular to this kind of marketing.

“Junk food companies have done a stellar job of associating Alert Level 3 with consuming their products. Adults have the choice today to buy takeaways food from big global brands or support local retailers.

“It’s not acceptable that there is no regulation of kids being hammered by hyped-up harmful marketing, on tv, radio and online when they are stuck at home in lockdown.

“It’s time the Government took a long hard look at the data and decided whether they still want their Covid public health controls to be equated with K-fry.”


The original research referenced, which has been recently updated with new data: 


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