Targeting Children of Color

Sept. 21, 2021

Can we all agree that it’s bad to target children with marketing for food that tastes good but is terrible nutritionally?

Can we all agree that it’s bad to target children with marketing for food that tastes good but is terrible nutritionally?

I don’t consider that an especially controversial proposition, especially for parents who are tired of shooting down requests to get McDonald’s for dinner. But the fast-food and food processing industries see things differently. They wouldn’t even allow voluntary guidelines for restricting advertising to children to be instituted in 2011, as Michelle Obama urged.

The problem is especially acute among young people of color. According to a study earlier this year from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Black youths saw about 75% more advertising in 2019 for fast food than white ones. This is a population that suffers disproportional rates of diet-related illnesses and maladies, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. That report also found that schools near communities of color are more likely to have fast food restaurants situated nearby.

And it’s only going to get worse, thanks to targeted marketing.

Facebook and other social media constitute a growing portion of the ad spend for consumer goods companies, including fast food restaurants. And targeted marketing – appealing to demographics, especially age and race – is their whole business model. As the head of the nonprofit Berkeley Media Studies Group put it to Vice.com: “The biggest marketers to kids right now are Google and Facebook.”

The industry’s approach has been some pretty weak sauce. The most relevant advertising guideline is the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, launched in 2007. But as Vice points out, it only pertains to children under 12; teenagers, with their bigger appetites and greater mobility, are a far more lucrative target. Only two of the 19 companies involved are fast food chains (McDonald’s and Burger King), and the guidelines say nothing about racial disparities.

The industry may have done a good job up to now deflecting calls for more responsible advertising, but this issue isn’t going to go away. The social media giants that enable targeted ads are getting a lot of scrutiny from federal authorities; it’s not inconceivable that they will face some restrictions on using racial demographics to sell harmful products. And under the Biden administration, Big Food might get swept up right alongside Big Tech.

Young people of color have a lot of stuff thrown at them, every day. Constant temptation to unhealthy eating shouldn’t be part of it.

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