As a result of being targeted by fast food advertising campaigns, a new study shows that African-American youth order more items and are more likely to purchase larger-sized, less healthy options, as compared to white youth. Can these marketing campaigns be blamed for growing health disparities in the childhood obesity crisis?
In response to public concern, a number of restaurants and fast food chains have added healthier options and nutritional information to their menus. A new study published by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity suggests however, that food marketing strategies may eclipse the positive impact of these initiatives, especially in communities of color.
Mildred Thompson is the Deputy Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity. Given the disproportionate rates of childhood obesity in minority populations, Thompson believes that it is unacceptable for African-American children to be targeted by fast food advertisements in such a manner. “When kids are overly targeted and overly exposed, there serious implications for health,” says Thomson, “consumers need to be informed…it’s a matter of social justice.”
Between television advertisements, Internet marketing, social media, viral marketing,and signs outside restaurants children are exposed to more fast food advertisements than they have been in the past. From 2003 to 2007 the number of fast food advertisements on television alone increased 12 percent. According to the Rudd Center study, African-American children and teens see at least 50 percent more fast food ads than their white peers. That is, African-American children see nearly twice as many calories as white children see in fast food TV advertisements each day.
Although this discrepancy in fast food advertisement exposure rates is due, in part, to the fact that African-American children spend more time watching television than white children, the Rudd Center study shows that the fast food industry disproportionately targets the African-American community. McDonald’s and KFC, for example, specifically target African-American youth with television ads, websites, and banner ads, and as a result African-American teens viewed 75 percent more advertising for these companies than their white peers. Additionally, restaurants located in food deserts, or poorer communities with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, have more in-store advertisements that promote less healthy food options than restaurants located in wealthier neighborhoods. Researchers also found that marketing is often aimed at getting children to visit the restaurant and building brand loyalty rather than promoting healthier food choices.
According to the White House Task force on Childhood Obesity, restaurants have “an important role to play in creating a food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents and other caregivers to encourage healthy eating among children and prevent obesity.”
Founded in 2006, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) was a the fast food industry’s self-regulated attempt to change messages directed at children under the age of 12. Although all 16 member companies, including Burger King and McDonald’s, have pledged to promote nutritious food choices and encourage healthier lifestyles, recent studies have questioned the efficiency of the initiative. In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission noted that each company participating in the initiative developed its own nutritional standards for “healthy dietary choice,” and criticized the CFBAI for only applying these standards to certain forms of advertising.
Given that more than 60 percent of fast food ads viewed by children were for foods other than kids’ meals, the Rudd Center study highlights the fact that children are influenced by secondhand exposure to ads for foods and beverages targeted to adults. Since children are exposed to adult advertisements it is important for these ads reflect healthy food choices as well. In 2009, McDonald’s used African-American characters in 23 percent of its commercials. Although Thomson applauds multiculturalism and diversity in the media, she is concerned about the dangers of showing dynamic and socially engaging African-Americans adults eating unhealthy foods. Thomson urges fast food advertisers to depict diverse individuals practicing healthy food choices so that kids can emulate better role models.
Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., is the director and co-founder of the Rudd Center and author of the study. He says the study’s “results show that the fast food industry’s promises to market less unhealthy food to young people are not enough…If they truly wish to be considered partners in public health, fast food restaurants need to drastically reduce the total amount of marketing that children and teens see for fast food and the iconic brands that sell it.”
Until the restaurant and fast food industry promotes healthy food selection choices in all communities, we must be question weather these companies truly wish to be partners in public health.
For more information on fast food marketing and healthy dining options, visit fastfoodmarketing.org.