Alcohol bottle in small trolley in front of computer screen with credit card options

Research informs government debate on targeted advertising of harmful products

Author  Kathy Nickels
Date 2 June 2023

The ADM+S Centre has welcomed the call by crossbench MPs for the Federal Government to use independent evidence on targeted advertising to inform debate about pervasive marketing of harmful products as a matter of public importance.

MPs Dr Sophie Scamps, Ms Zali Steggall, Ms Allegra Spender, Mr Andrew Wilkie, Ms Kate Chaney, Ms Kylea Tink, Dr Monique Ryan, Ms Zoe Daniel, Dr Helen Haines and Ms Rebekha Sharkie on Wednesday called on the Government to use the reform of the Privacy Act to close loopholes that allow companies to “saturate broadcast and social media with harmful product marketing”.

Nicholas Carah, Associate Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) and Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, said that the crossbench MPs represented widespread community concern about the use of data to target advertising of harmful products to children and vulnerable people. 

Research from the University of Queensland and Monash University in partnership with VicHealth has shown that Facebook and Instagram collect hundreds of data points on young people aged 16 to 25 years, with 42 per cent assigned terms like ‘alcohol’, ‘alcoholic drinks’, ‘bars’, ‘bartender’ and ‘beer’ as advertising interests, including children.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, FARE, has discovered dozens of breaches of the advertising code on the Facebook pages of popular alcohol brands. FARE found content that contained images of under-25-year-olds drinking, celebrated binge drinking and implied that alcohol is connected to social success. 

Research at the ADM+S Centre is investigating targeted advertising of harmful products including alcohol, gambling and unhealthy foods through the Australian Ad Observatory project. 

In March 2023, the research from the Australian Ad Observatory found gambling ads that were illegally targeting Australians on Facebook

The Australian Ad Observatory conducts independent research into the role that algorithmically targeted advertising plays in society. 

The Australian Ad Observatory takes a citizen science approach to investigating how Facebook ads target Australian users. It relies on the general public donating data through a plugin available for desktop versions of leading web browsers. To join the project visit

Associate Professor Carah said “The Australian Ad Observatory project at the ADM+S aims to improve the observability of targeted online advertising in Australia, and forms part of broader efforts to help improve transparency and accountability in the digital platform environment.”

Recognising the importance of research to support government decisions and policy change, the ADM+S Centre has proposed the Australian Social Data Observatory (ASDO). Working with a broad consortium of colleagues, this landmark National Research Infrastructure would provide the tools and capabilities to gather and analyse online user experience data, algorithms and interactions, making social data dramatically more useable for Australian researchers—across universities, government, industry and civil society.

Daniel Angus, Chief Investigator and Chair of Infrastructure at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) and Professor at Queensland University of Technology, said that the highly ephemeral and personalised nature of the online user experience points to the need for increased investment in national-scale research support infrastructure.

Professor Angus says “To understand Australian’s everyday experience of digital platforms we need a far more comprehensive approach to data collection than what is currently available. 

Good policy development for digital platforms relies on not just knowing what is being shared online, but also knowing who is seeing what, and how these targeting and curatorial decisions are being made through the platforms’ proprietary recommendation systems.” 


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