An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Expert Perspective

The Digital Marketplace Can Create Inequity, or Confront It

Food marketing to children SNAP

Jeffrey Chester, MSW

Executive Director, Center of Digital Democracy

Kathryn Montgomery, PhD

Research Director and Senior Strategist, Center of Digital Democracy


October 23rd, 2023


For decades, food and beverage companies have disproportionately and aggressively marketed unhealthy products to kids of color—from snacks and sugary drinks to candy and fast food. Their tactics are becoming more sophisticated, especially in the digital marketplace, where they collaborate with technology companies to target unhealthy ads at kids across every platform: mobile apps, games, streaming video, social media, and more.  

Companies see youth of color as a growing demographic of important trendsetters who are key to the success of their brands. They enlist powerful “multicultural” icons of youth pop culture in campaigns and follow youth across different devices to deliver tailored messages based on their geolocation, purchasing and eating patterns, and even the ethnic/racial mix of their neighborhood. 

We are working with researchers, policymakers, and advocates to advance equity in the digital marketplace. Some of the strategies we’re exploring include limiting food and beverage companies’ access to consumers’ data. For example, our research shows that participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) who use their benefits online, including people of color and individuals with disabilities, are disproportionately at risk of targeted digital marketing for unhealthy foods and beverages. We are also partnering with international scholars and public health experts to identify successful policy models and to forge global strategies for creating an online marketplace where everyone has equal access to healthy, affordable products.

"It is possible to create a digital marketplace—and a public narrative on food—that supports health instead of harming it."

Jeffrey Chester

To get there, we should:

  • Collaborate across sectors to shape the agenda. Making changes this significant must be a collective effort. We need researchers, policymakers, and advocates to work together toward common goals. That could also mean learning from efforts from abroad.
  • Incorporate health equity principles into digital policy frameworks. Discussions about health, equity, and privacy are often siloed. To make real progress, we must bring these discussions together. Better data privacy practices must also take into account how companies market, especially to young people and communities of color.
  • Leverage companies’ commitments to push for change. Leading food, advertising, and media corporations have made strong public commitments to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, yet many of these promises have not been fulfilled. Advocates should continue to track those commitments and apply public pressure to curtail the use of discriminatory target marketing practices.

"It is time for the U.S. to develop a comprehensive strategy for ending the youth obesity epidemic. Through legislation, regulation, legal action, and corporate responsibility initiatives, we must work together to ensure that all young people are given a fair chance to live healthy lives."

Kathryn Montgomery

About the Authors

Jeffrey Chester, MSW
Executive Director, Center of Digital Democracy
Kathryn Montgomery, PhD
Research Director and Senior Strategist, Center of Digital Democracy

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