As America’s childhood obesity epidemic rages on, kids are not getting a healthy media diet.
Some 86% of spending on food advertising targeting African-American consumers and 82% of spending on food advertising targeting Hispanic consumers is for unhealthy items like fast food, candy, sugary drinks, and unhealthy snacks, a study released this week found. Black children saw 86% more ads than their white peers in 2017 and black teens saw 119% more ads than their white peers.
The study, from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, the Council on Black Health at Drexel University, and Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio found food companies spent almost $11 billion in total TV advertising in 2017, including $1.1 billion on advertising in black-targeted and Spanish-language TV programming. Food companies increased their spending on TV ads targeting African-Americans by more than 50% between 2013 and 2017.
Companies target minorities because it is profitable, the report said. Asian and Hispanic people are the fastest-growing populations in the U.S., and their buying power is growing quickly as well.
“Food companies have introduced healthier products and established corporate responsibility programs to support health and wellness among their customers,” said Jennifer Harris, the report’s lead author and the Rudd Center’s director of Marketing Initiatives. “But this study shows that they continue to spend 8 of 10 TV-advertising dollars on fast food, candy, sugary drinks, and unhealthy snacks, with even more advertising for these products targeted to black and Hispanic youth.”
(The Food Marketing Institute, an American food marketing organization did not respond to request for comment. The Food and Beverage Association of America and the National Confectioners Association did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Companies target minorities because it is profitable, the report said. Asian and Hispanic people are the fastest-growing populations in the U.S., and their buying power is growing quickly as well. The report said black Americans are often targeted because “marketers view African-Americans as trendsetters who younger consumers want to emulate.”
Minorities are not the only targets of unhealthy food advertising: Advertising for healthy foods like juice, water, nuts, and fruit made up only 3% of overall ad spending in 2017.
“Companies’ statements regarding targeted marketing commonly focused on targeted marketing as good for business,” the report said. “Several companies highlighted their interest in attracting multicultural consumers.”
Minorities are not the only targets of unhealthy food advertising: Advertising for healthy foods like juice, water, nuts, and fruit made up only 3% of overall ad spending in 2017. With increasing awareness around wellness, sugary beverages and the health risks of eating fast food, corporations appear to be focusing their marketing on these products.
Unhealthy food is a problem that targets all Americans and cannot be simply blamed on advertising, said Joel Berg, chief executive officer of Hunger Free America, a nonprofit organization in New York that works to end hunger through advocacy and public policy.
“Kids have liked candy long before there was television,” he said. “This problem should be rectified, but there is a broader problem when the food industry thinks less-healthy food is more profitable than healthy food. The single best way to fight obesity is to make healthier food more affordable and convenient.”
The study authors have suggested food manufacturers increase marketing of healthier products and establish standards regarding what products can be advertised to youth. They also called on them to stop disproportionately targeting African-American and Hispanic youths for ads for unhealthy food.
‘If the industry really values these consumers, companies will take responsibility for advertising that encourages poor diet and related diseases.’
“This report shows just how much the food and beverage industry values Hispanic consumers when it comes to encouraging them to buy unhealthy products,” said Amelie Ramirez, study author and director of health program Salud America! “If the industry really values these consumers, companies will take responsibility for advertising that encourages poor diet and related diseases.”
The report comes as the obesity epidemic in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent decades. The share of American children between 2 and 19 years old who are obese grew from 14% in 1999 to 18.5% in 2016, a study published in the journal Pediatrics in February 2018 found.
Minority children are more likely to be obese, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 22% of black children between the ages of 6 and 11 years old are obese compared to 14% of white children in that age group, and 23% of black children between the ages of 6 and 17 years old are obese compared to 17% of children in that age group.
America’s obesity problem comes as hunger is on the rise in the country. While this may seem incongruous, the two are actually related, Berg said. “Hunger and obesity are flip sides of the same malnutrition coin,” he said. “There are complex risk factors for obesity, but there is no question that socioeconomic issues are key factors.”
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