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Q&A: How Food Marketing Contributes to Health Disparities

Food marketing to children


April 18th, 2019


The competition for consumer attention is intense—and expensive. Ask the country’s leading restaurants and food and beverage companies. They spent over $11 billion dollars in total TV advertising in 2017 alone. And, an even closer look at the food companies’ ad spending reveals an alarming truth about their spending patterns.

In January 2019, the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, The Council on Black Health and Salud America! released a report unveiling a concerning picture of some company marketing practices. The report found that fast food, candy, sugary drinks, and unhealthy snacks represented 86 percent of food ad spending on Black-targeted TV programming (where Black consumers comprise the majority of viewers), and 82 percent of ad spending on Spanish-language TV, in 2017. Black teens saw more than twice as many ads for unhealthy products as White teens did in 2017, despite companies reducing their overall rates of TV food advertising.

Below is a conversation with two of the report’s lead authors, Shiriki K. Kumanyika and Amelie G. Ramirez, both internationally recognized researchers, about the findings of this marketing research and analysis. The researchers’ conclusions highlight the risks posed when food companies target communities already struggling with high rates of obesity and obstacles to healthy habits.

Teenage boy in a restaurant eating a hamburger and french fries

(Photo/Getty Images)

Shiriki K. Kumanyika, Ph.D., M.P.H., is Founder and Chair of the Council on Black Health (CBH) at Drexel University, formerly the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (AACORN), a national network of academic scholars and community research partners based in approximately 20 states around the nation. Dr. Kumanyika has conducted more than three decades of obesity research with a special focus on disparities facing black children and adults. (Bio)

Amelie G. Ramirez, Dr.P.H., M.P.H., is an expert in Latino health promotion and behavioral change and serves as the director of Salud America! and its home base, the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. Amelie has spent 30 years directing research on human and organizational communication to reduce chronic disease and cancer health disparities affecting Latinos. (Bio)

Q&A with Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika


Why do you think food and beverage companies are increasing their TV advertising to black children and teens while they’re reducing their overall TV advertising?

I certainly can’t second guess the companies as to their motives. But I assume that this somehow relates to profit and the perception that black children and teens are an especially important and responsive market segment for certain products and that TV ads are an effective channel for targeting black children and adolescents even while the overall impact of TV is being diluted by other channels. The substantial investments made by some of these companies in building and maintaining relationships with black communities through sponsorships, for example, build loyalty that presumably pays off at the bottom line. So, the challenge lies in how to make a business case for changing these patterns.


Can you explain how food marketing is associated with weight gain and/or obesity, particularly for black children and teens?

The obesity epidemic tells us that youth are eating too much and the connection to marketing is relatively straightforward: aggressive marketing of appealing, high-calorie products, which are affordable and easy to purchase, encourages kids to consume too much of them, too frequently. Research shows that kids and teens are susceptible to food advertising and that it influences what they eat. So, decreasing their exposure to this kind of food marketing is likely to reduce consumption of high-calorie foods. This applies to all youth but especially to black youth because they have greater exposure and may respond more strongly and more favorably to ads that are tailored to appeal to their ethnic identity and cultural perspectives.


You shared a few different recommendations about what food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants, grocery retailers, and media companies should do to improve their targeted marketing practices. Of those recommendations, do you think there is one that will have the most impact?

I think the recommendation for media companies to establish nutrition standards for products advertised to youth, including on Black-targeted programming, that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans could have a tremendous impact. Implementing this recommendation would mean that these companies would not be able to target black youth with advertisements for products that contribute to health risks that are of great concern to this customer base.

Q&A with Dr. Amelie Ramirez


The brands in the healthiest product categories—100% juice, plain water, nuts, and fruit—did not advertise at all on Spanish-language TV. Why do you think that is?

It appears that food companies do not view the Latino population as one that is interested in purchasing healthy food and beverage products. However, these companies should rethink that view.

Overall U.S. consumer demand for healthy food options continues to skyrocket. There is no reason to believe that Latinos do not want healthier food options. Just the opposite, in fact. For example, purchases of organic food by Latinos rose 13 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to a recent report based on Nielsen data. Demand for healthier options is going up. Why not market these products to Latino families?


Do you have an example of a food and/or beverage company that has built a positive relationship with the Latino community by advertising healthy products and initiating culturally appropriate health and wellness initiatives?

I’m particularly proud of two grocery store chains. The Latino-owned Northgate González Markets use bilingual marketing to inspire healthy shopping in California, where 39% of the population is Latino. They created their own bilingual labels that highlight the healthy aspects of foods and warn of the less healthy aspects. And they didn’t stop there. They used this as a springboard to partner with local non-profits to provide high school students with an opportunity to create their own healthy dishes and compete in the nationwide cooking challenge, and they became the first chain in the state to participate in the California Fresh Works loan program, an initiative that helps bring grocery stores to areas designated as “food deserts.”

H-E-B, a popular and large grocery chain located throughout Texas, also uses healthy marketing practices. They mark food products with nutritional tags to help consumers see healthier options more easily, help consumers online with the Health and Wellness section of its website, and include specific identifications for products made with no artificial ingredients. H-E-B also has bilingual nutrition staff on hand to help Latino patrons find healthy options.

The leadership shown by these two chains is very important. Some grocers’ marketing, placement, and store design nudges Latino families toward unhealthy foods. But we know that access to, and purchases of, affordable healthy foods tends to improve when healthy food offerings are expanded and promoted in underserved communities, according to a Salud America! research review.


You shared a few different recommendations about what food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants, grocery retailers, and media companies should do to improve their targeted marketing practices. Of those recommendations, do you think there is one that will have the most impact?

When it comes to food and beverage companies and their advertising, most already belong to the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a food industry self-regulatory program, and they comply with their pledges to advertise only healthier dietary choices in child-directed media. However, most programming on Spanish-language and Black-targeted TV does not meet CFBAI definitions of child-targeted media (where the audience comprises 35 percent or more of children under age 12), so these ads are not covered by their pledge. In other words, these companies are finding loopholes and still managing to expose Latino and Black kids to their least-healthy food and drink products.

That said, the recommendation with the most potential is to change the food environment itself. Menu labeling, for example, was a big positive step. We’re also seeing steps to remove sugary drinks from kids’ menus. California even recently became the first state to make water or milk the default drink on kids’ menus.

Changing the environment will yield the biggest impact.

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