The obesity epidemic has a particularly high toll on children of color: 39.3 percent of Mexican-American children are overweight, 10 percent higher than non-Latino white children, and diabetes rates are rising fastest among Hispanic children. Aggressive marketing plays its part. Between their favorite shows, children are much more likely to see a Spanish-speaking SpongeBob Squarepants or Shrek invite them to try Burger King and McDonald’s kids meals than if they were watching English-language shows.
According to a new study published in Journal of Health Communication, fast food companies are packing children’s TV programs with Spanish-language marketing. More than three-quarters of Spanish-language food ads used children’s favorite cartoon characters to market the unhealthiest foods. On English-language shows that number drops to just under half of the ads.
Forbes’ Rob Waters discusses the study, which found that fast food commercials dominated 158 hours of children’s programming:
The research, led by Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of Arizona, found that 84 percent of the food commercials aimed at Spanish-speaking kids promoted foods ranked in the worst of three food categories devised by federal health officials. Such foods are so high in fat and sugar, and so low in nutrients, that health experts say they should rarely be eaten. Less than 1 percent of the ads promoted fruits, vegetables, whole grains or other healthy foods, while 15 percent advertised moderately nutritious foods that should be eaten just a few times a week.
There is a strong case for why aggressive targeting matters to public health: Children spend the most amount of time in front of a TV (except for sleeping), and the food and beverage industries are powerful players in cultivating children’s tastes and brand preferences. While companies have promised to reform early-childhood marketing, they are only accountable to their self-regulated pledges. “Industry self-regulation is less effective on Spanish-language television channels,” notes the study’s authors.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of fast food marketing is the amount that preschoolers are targeted. Research from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that preschoolers generally saw more ads for McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway than their older counterparts. Spanish-speaking preschoolers see 290 fast food ads per year, with McDonald’s responsible for a quarter of those commercials. At that age, and up to 6 years old, kids are generally unable to distinguish between programming and advertising.
Soda company marketing is another culprit. A University of Illinois at Chicago Helath Policy Center study found that low-income black and Latino youth were exposed to 80 percent and 49 percent more ads than white children, respectively. But in keeping with the industry’s attempts to head off reform by self-regulating, Coca-Cola announced Wednesday it would stop marketing to children under age 12. However, companies rarely keep to those promises.