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Expert Perspective

Why We Need a More Equitable Food Marketing Environment

Food marketing to children

Fran Fleming-Milici, PhD

Director of Marketing Initiatives, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health


February 14th, 2023


Food marketing is something everyone is exposed to every day—especially kids. Companies use TV ads, youth-directed packaging, outdoor signs, and sponsorships to promote products, as well as digital marketing via social media campaigns, in-game marketing, and paid promotions from influencers to target kids directly. Food marketing is even in online educational resources for kids.

We rarely stop to think about it, but we should. The power of food marketing cannot be understated: it influences attitudes, preferences, and consumption; it reaches the youngest of ages; and it targets specific audiences, making exposure to unhealthy food promotion greater for some than others. In my 10+ years studying the amount and frequency with which people are exposed to food marketing, particularly children, and the poor nutrition of the products promoted, I’ve learned that we need substantial change in order for children to live longer, healthier lives in a more equitable food environment.

Late last year, the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health released a report on U.S. food companies’ targeted marketing of food and drinks to Black and Hispanic consumers. Previous reports have documented how products in primarily unhealthy categories—including fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and sweet and salty snacks—are disproportionately promoted to Black and Hispanic audiences. Such efforts contribute to diet-related health disparities affecting communities of color, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

There are very few times in a day when food marketing doesn’t reach kids—perhaps only when they are sleeping.

The report focused on 19 food and beverage companies in the U.S., representing 74 percent of all food and beverage advertising spending in 2021. We analyzed changes in TV ad exposure and spending from 2017 and 2021 and examined companies’ public statements about their targeted marketing campaigns and initiatives. 

The results were shocking: 

  • While overall TV ad spending decreased during these years, companies increased the percentage of their TV ad budgets to Spanish-language channels, and Black children and adults continued to view more food and beverage ads than their White counterparts. 
  • In 2021, candy, sugary drinks, cereal, and sweet/savory snacks represented 75% of Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV ad spending, up from approximately 50% of each in 2017.
  • The initiatives and campaigns focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion and causes important to Black and Hispanic consumers we identified in this report almost exclusively promoted unhealthy products.

And Black and Hispanic young people get a double-dose of targeting with marketing strategies that both appeal to their age and have cultural relevance. For example, in our recent report we found multiple campaigns—many of which utilized youth-oriented platforms such as TikTok and Instagram—that featured hip-hop and Latinx stars as spokespeople for products such as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, and Oreos.

It’s also worthwhile to look at the other factors that contribute to the disparities we see in exposure to food marketing. For instance, a family with more resources may pay to opt out of ads on video streaming services or smartphone games, safeguarding their children from additional digital marketing. Or a family that can afford childcare can go grocery shopping without bringing their children along, limiting their children’s exposure to child-directed packaging and in-store displays designed to promote purchase requests. Finally, research documents a disproportionate presence of unhealthy food marketing in Black or Hispanic versus White neighborhoods and in lower-income versus higher-income neighborhoods.

Corporate responsibility efforts cannot erase the potential negative impacts of food and beverage companies’ marketing and may, in some cases, make it worse.

Reshaping our food environment by limiting food marketing is not at the top of our national public health priorities. It should be. We know that diet-related diseases are among the leading causes of death in this country and that food marketing directly influences the consumption of products that contribute to these diseases. 

So what can we do when companies aren’t following through on their promises to market healthy food? It’s clear from the incongruence between food companies’ campaign statements and their advertising spending that self-regulation isn’t enough, with a major barrier being that food and beverage companies’ primary goal is to generate profits, not increase public health. And the responsibility should not rest on the individual to “make better choices” or fix our food environment: we need serious structural changes in order to make the healthy choice the available and affordable choice for all consumers, no matter their race, ethnicity, or income level.

In order to limit young peoples’ access to and taste for unhealthy products, policies must hold food companies accountable for marketing unhealthy food to targeted populations. Whether through sugary drink taxes, policies to reduce marketing to children, front-of-package label changes, or incentives for making healthy choices, our local and federal leaders must take a stand to challenge industry and mitigate the harms of food marketing on consumers. While the food industry has power, so does the government. It can use its power for good. 

About the Author

Fran Fleming-Milici, PhD
Director of Marketing Initiatives, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health

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