Junk food commercials are disproportionately aimed at black youth

Marketing junk food to kids.
Marketing junk food to kids.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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As food companies intensify efforts to reach American children through television commercials, a new study (pdf) shows that a disproportionate number of those ads are being targeted at the black community,

The study—carried out by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and published this month in the journal Pediatric Obesity—used Nielsen gross-ratings-point data to quantify exposure to  advertising. Researchers found that exposure to such commercials increased with age for both black and white kids between 2008 and 2012, but black kids viewed about about 49% more ads than their white counterparts of the same age.

The discrepancy was not because black youth watched more television, but rather because the commercials were aired more frequently during TV programming targeted at black youth.

Close to 60% of the ads viewed by American kids were for breakfast cereals, candy, and restaurants. A full quarter of commercials marketed fast food—white kids saw two to four such ads per day, and black kids saw four to six. This is of particular interest for health advocacy groups, who blame those kinds of food groups for contributing to the rise in chronic health problems among American youth.

“Previous research has shown that the vast majority of advertising for these categories promotes products that are high in sugar, saturated fat and/or sodium,” the report states. “Furthermore, many of the persuasive techniques used in advertising for unhealthy foods disproportionately appeal to youth.”

Current and impartial data on how much money fast food companies spend advertising directly to children is difficult to come by. The Federal Trade Commission is tasked with monitoring such activity, but its efforts have fallen by the wayside. When the agency last collected industry-spend data in 2012, it found food companies had spent $1.8 billion on kid-and-adolescent targeted marketing in 2009.

Industry groups say they self-regulate child-targeting ads through a group called the Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative. The group reported (pdf) earlier this month that the total number of advertising hours on Nickelodeon has decreased since 2014, from 33 hours to 28 in 2016.