A constant barrage: US companies target junk food ads to people of color | Food & drink industry

Johane Filemon is tired of beating back the ads for burgers, french fries, high-sodium chips, candy and soda – aimed not at her, but at her five young children.

“You’ll see these ads pop up for sugary expensive cereals, to entice the kids to pressure their parents to purchase these foods, and then you as the parent look like the bad guy because you’re not buying them,” Filemon says.

The nutritionist, whose children range from nine months to 11 years old, steadfastly blocks mobile game and internet ads so they aren’t exposed to junk food messaging at home. Still, the barrage is constant, says Filemon, who posts about parenting and nutrition on Instagram. They are on TV, YouTube, social media platforms, game-streaming apps and even mobile educational games.

Johane Filemon wearing a yellow dress with a bowl of fruit and vegetables in front of her
Johane Filemon. Photograph: Mike Filemon

“Some parents may not even know that blocking the ads is a possibility, and their kids are watching those ads all the time,” she says. Filemon, who is Black, specifically worries about families of color, who she says are being systematically targeted with ads for unhealthy foods.

Her concerns are supported by a slew of research.

A new study published in November by the Rudd Center for Food and Policy Health at the University of Connecticut found that US food companies disproportionately market unhealthy food and drink – including candy, sodas, snacks and fast food – to Black and Hispanic children, teens and adults.

In 2021, Black youth and adults viewed up to 21% more food and beverage commercials than their white peers, according to the report, which also found food companies increased their advertising spend on Spanish language TV as a total proportion of their TV ad budget.

The study’s findings build on research that goes back more than a decade. In 2010, Rudd Center researchers found an increase in fast-food adverts geared towards children and they found Black children were exposed to 50% more fast-food ads than their white peers. A 2014 Arizona State University report revealed fast-food restaurants in predominantly Black neighborhoods were more likely to target advertising to children – including displaying kids meal toys and using cartoon characters.

As the advertising landscape changes, companies are finding creative ways to market their products. Many fast-food brands employ celebrities from Black and Hispanic communities, which can encourage young people of color to purchase their products, according to the Rudd Center report. McDonald’s, for example, has partnered with rappers Saweetie and Travis Scott.

“When I looked into the McDonald’s meals that are sponsored and endorsed by celebrities, you almost always see a person of color with that meal,” said Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, 18, a Top Chef Junior finalist who grew up in a Haitian-American and Mexican-American household. “Instead, I’d love to see celebrities really being in their community and supporting people that way… If someone tells me a pop star is giving out organic fruit rolls on a corner in the city, I would be there, especially as a kid.”

A spokesperson for McDonald’s said that company “believes in marketing responsibly and ensuring our advertising reflects the diverse customers and communities we serve”. The fast-food giant is “helping lead the industry on self-regulation around advertising to children” the spokesperson added, including “balanced menu offerings and responsible marketing to kids under age 12”.

McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski with a Happy Meal at McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago.
McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski with a Happy Meal at McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago. Photograph: Jean-Marc Giboux/AP

The success of targeted advertising exacerbates existing inequalities around diet and diet-related diseases in Black and Hispanic communities, the recent Rudd Center report concludes.

While nearly one in five children in the US is categorized as obese, rates are higher among children of color: 26.2% of Hispanic children and 24.8% of Black children are classified as obese, compared to 16.6% of white children.

Children of color are more likely to live in areas lacking affordable, nutritious food. Predominantly white neighborhoods have a higher percentage of supermarkets than predominantly Black neighborhoods, while grocery stores in some low-income communities of color are less likely to stock healthy foods than stores in higher-income, predominantly white areas.

“For many in the Black and brown communities, it’s hard to get out of this systemic food depression,” Filemon says. “Not everyone has the financial means to do all the steps required to eat healthy.” Yet despite significant socioeconomic challenges to healthier eating, parents are often blamed for their children’s obesity.

Campaigners are calling for structural changes to dilute the power of big food companies but so far federal action has been limited.

In the late 1970s, an attempt by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on advertising to children ended in disaster. A proposed ban on TV ads for junk food aimed at children caused an uproar, not only among the food industry but also politicians. Congress allowed the commission’s funding to lapse and the agency was closed for a short time.

Since then, powerful food industry lobbying has worked to prevent the FTC from enacting even voluntary guidelines. In 2011, the organization dropped plans for guidelines banning junk food ads to children 17 and under, instead lowering the age limit to 11, after being pressured by food industry and media giants, who spent tens of millions lobbying against the voluntary standards.

In a 2012 report, the FTC said that while there was “legitimate cause for public concern” around ads targeted at children, a ban would be “neither a workable nor an efficacious solution to the health problem of childhood obesity”.

Mitchell J Katz, senior public affairs specialist at the FTC, told the Guardian: “The commission does not regulate advertising. We enforce the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive or misleading advertising.”

Multicolored candies
Photograph: Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

Policies are being proposed at more local levels. In New York state, the Predatory Marketing Prevention Act (PMPA), a bill that would categorize unhealthy food marketed to children as misleading or deceptive and allow regulators to restrict this kind of advertising, is in review with the New York Senate’s Health Committee.

There are also efforts at corporate self-regulation. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was set up to create guidelines around advertising and has 19 food and drinks companies as members. They have pledged to restrict advertising of unhealthy products to children under 12, although the guidelines are littered with loopholes, according to a Rudd Center analysis.

Some media companies have implemented their own guidelines. Disney restricts food advertisements across its television channels, radio station and website to food products that meet its nutrition criteria for limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium and sugar.

YouTube Kids has a policy prohibiting paid food and beverage advertising but YouTube creators are able to use paid product placement or incentivized endorsements, as long as they disclose them. When it comes to food, these products tend to be unhealthy. An 2020 analysis of 179 videos from five of the most-watched child YouTube influencers found more than 90% of the food and beverage mentions were unhealthy branded items.

A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said: “On YouTube Kids, Made for Kids content and Supervised Experiences on YouTube we do not allow ads for foods and beverages products nor are creators allowed to make money promoting these products. Creators that include paid promotions in their videos are responsible for complying with ads policies and declaring whether they are receiving money for promoting products generally.”

Social media advertising can be particularly hard to manage because parents don’t see these platforms as a way for children to receive marketing, said Frances Fleming-Millici, director of marketing initiatives for the Rudd Center. “It’s not advertising in a way that we are programmed to think of. Branded products in child influencer videos are hard for parents to do anything about.”

The FTC held an event in October to review these types of advertising, sometimes called “stealth marketing” or “blurred advertising”. Panelists suggested potential solutions including disclosures, parental controls and even a ban on stealth marketing aimed at children.

There is much more companies can be doing, Fleming-Millici said, including making deeper investments in marginalized communities. “If you are saying you care about these communities or about increasing equity in racial justice, then look at what you’re marketing and making for communities of color, because it’s actually hurting these communities,” she said.

In July, the Council on Black Health (CBH), a research and action network, launched an initiative calling for the availability and promotion of healthier food choices in Black communities.

Shiriki K Kumanyika, chair of the CBH, said change will come by keeping the pressure on fast food and packaged food corporations, rather than pointing fingers at individuals. “I don’t believe [junk food] is all consumers want, and this is not an isolated problem that you can fix at the consumer interface.”

Filemon says fast food companies must increase their advertising of healthier items, making them more attractive to kids. “They can still make money by advertising their more nutrient-dense foods,” she said. “The constant marketing of unhealthy food is setting these kids of color and their bodies – the future of their health – up for failure.”

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