Exposure to crime, poverty, limited health care, and poor quality education can dim the life outcome of any child. But on top of that, those youngsters — especially those of color and those living in rural communities — are also victims of the fast food industry’s aggressive marketing tactics, according to an Arizona State University (ASU) study.
Researchers examined more than 6,700 fast food restaurants — all selected from a national sample of more than 400 communities where middle and high school-aged children live — between 2010 and 2012. They found that restaurants in middle-class neighborhoods, rural communities, and majority black neighborhoods used child-directed marketing strategies more often than their counterparts in non-Hispanic and majority white neighborhoods.
Common marketing tactics highlighted in the study included indoor play areas and the display of kids’ meal toys, advertisements with movie, television, and sports figures that passersby could see from the parking lot and street. Researchers also measured the use of advertisements for kids’ meals toys.
“Marketing food to children is of great concern not only because it affects their current consumption patterns, but also because it may affect their taste and preferences,” Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, the lead researcher and an associate professor of nutrition in ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, said in a university news statement. “We know that consumption of fast food in children may lead to obesity or poorer health, and that low income and minority children eat fast food more often.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, fast food restaurants spend nearly $700 million annually to market their food to children and teenagers. Their efforts haven’t gone in vain. Nearly one out of three American children between the ages of two and 14 and half of adolescents eat or drink something from a fast food restaurant daily, according to a 2008 National Center for Biotechnology Information study.
And previous research has found similar evidence of racial targeting. Beverage companies have aggressively marketed their products to black and Latino children at a rate 80 percent higher than that of their white counterparts. One study found that fast food companies particularly target Spanish-language TV to inundate Latino children with ads for unhealthy products.
Fast food executives often place the onus on consumers to determine the risk in consuming their products. But public health experts have stressed that these marketing tactics have disproportionately affected a demographic already reeling from preventable chronic health issues and living in communities where few, if any, affordable options exist.
Today, more than 49 million Americans live in areas with high food insecurity, where the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away. Even with funds from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program at their disposal, people living in low-income communities don’t enjoy high quality produce as much as their wealthier counterparts.
The gap in quality food access has created an obesity epidemic that has affected African Americans disproportionately. According to information compiled by NetWellness — an online health information project funded by the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State University, and Case Western Reserve University — about 60 percent of black men and 78 percent of black women consider themselves to be overweight. African American women also have the highest rates of obesity in the nation.
Obesity carries the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Other ailments include Type 2 diabetes, a host of cancers, high cholesterol, and liver and gallbladder disease; sicknesses that disproportionately affect African Americans. Reversing the trend requires young people to develop healthy eating habits early. Research has shown that maintaining a balanced diet and engaging in physical activity can reduce body fat, insulin levels, and risk of obesity.
While fast food companies say they’ve tried to do their part in suppressing their marketing tactics through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative — a voluntary, self-regulatory program — a recent Yale University study found that companies still haven’t made much headway in promoting healthier options to impressionable youngsters.
Common marketing tactics for junk food include featuring athletes and celebrities in advertisements, placing products in bright, colorful packages, integrating brands on media platforms that are foreign to adults, and arranging products on store shelves so that they meet children at eye level.
“Despite the self-regulatory efforts, a stronger push for providing and marketing only healthy foods to children is needed, especially in disadvantaged populations,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “We know that fast food is convenient and inexpensive and is often used by parents to provide quick meals to their children. We want to make it easier for parents and children, especially those at greater risk for poor diet and health, to make healthier choices by marketing only healthy food options that meet dietary guidelines to children.”