Black and Hispanic youth are targeted with junk food ads, research shows

Click over to TV programming that caters to black and Hispanic youth and the commercials almost exclusively ...

Posted: Jan 15, 2019 4:03 PM
Updated: Jan 15, 2019 4:03 PM

Click over to TV programming that caters to black and Hispanic youth and the commercials almost exclusively push fast food, sugary drinks, bad-for-you snacks and candy, a new report shows.

Junk food comprised 86% of ad spending on black-targeted programming and 82% of spending on Spanish-language television in 2017, according to the study released Tuesday.

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"These companies are not just targeting black and Hispanic kids with their advertising, but they're targeting them with the worst products," said lead author Jennifer Harris of University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

The report by the Rudd Center, a research and policy group working to combat childhood obesity, the Council on Black Health at Drexel University and Salud America! at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio analyzed the targeted advertising efforts of 32 restaurants and food and beverage companies that spent in excess of $100 million to reach children and teens just in 2017.

The researchers also looked at exposure to ads and compared their findings to previous data collected in 2013.

What they found was a growing disparity between what white youth and minority youth saw.

For example, while food companies decreased their spending for TV advertising by 4% between 2013 and 2017, a fact mirrored on Spanish-language TV, they upped their spending for black-targeted programs by more than 50%, researchers said.

In 2013, black youth saw 70% more food-related ads than their white peers. By 2017, black children saw 86% more than white kids, and black teens saw 119% more than white teens, the study found.

And this happened against a backdrop of healthier food options gaining buzz, and when companies touted their corporate responsibility programs and commitment to helping solve America's obesity problem, Harris said.

Those efforts were more about PR and didn't translate into advertising budgets, she said, especially for black and Hispanic youth.

Only 3% of ad dollars went to promoting healthier food options overall. But black-targeted programming saw just 1% of that spending and Spanish-language TV saw little to none.

That means Hispanic youth watching Spanish-language television were pretty much left out when it came to ads for options like nuts and fruits, researchers said; instead, nearly 20% of ads they viewed were for candy.

"At best, these advertising patterns imply that food companies view Black consumers as interested in candy, sugary drinks, fast food, and snacks with a lot of salt, fat, or sugar, but not in healthier foods," said Shiriki Kumanyika, one of the study's authors and chair of the Council on Black Health, in a written statement.

"Not only are these companies missing out on a marketing opportunity," she added, "but they are inadvertently contributing to poor health in Black communities by heavily promoting products linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure."

Obesity rates for non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanic youth far outpace the rates for white and Asian youth, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 26% of Hispanic youth and 22% of black youth were deemed obese, versus 14% of whites and 11% of Asians. The worst off, though, were Hispanic boys at 28% and black girls at more than 25%.

By studying advertising data, researchers were able to determine which companies targeted which group. Five companies that stood out in reaching black youth included Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Hershey, PepsiCo and Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut). Among the companies targeting Hispanic youth were Mars, Nestle, Yum! Brands, McDonald's and General Mills.

CNN contacted most all of these companies for a reaction to the report. Only Hershey reached out with a response.

It is "not accurate" to say that Hershey targets youth or any ethnic or racial group, insisted spokesman Jeff Beckman.

"There is a significant difference between 'targeting' and 'reaching' consumers," he explained in an email. "With iconic brands that are loved across virtually all demographics (age, race, income), we buy our TV spots on the outlets and programs that reach the broadest cross section of the American adult population."

Hershey is "committed to not marketing to children," and makes its media buys "based on reaching adults and decision makers in households," he said.

"Broad-based TV media is consumed by many consumers, so when you buy a spot to reach a broad range of adults, there will also be some percentage of youth who will see the spot as well," he added. "But it is inaccurate to conflate reaching a certain group of consumers with specifically targeting them."

Still, the report's authors hope their study will help make food manufacturers think differently. They want these companies to target black and Hispanic youth less with unhealthy food ads and, instead, include these kids in initiatives to promote healthier habits.

"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 study co-author Amelie Ramirez, director of Salud America!, which advocates for health equity.

"If the industry really values these consumers, companies will take responsibility for advertising that encourages poor diet and related diseases," she added in a written statement. "They can start by eliminating the marketing of unhealthy products to Hispanic youth and families."

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