Hispanic and African-American youth — groups that lean toward obesity — seem to be the preferred target of snack food companies.
According to a recent study by the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, junk food comprised 86% of ad spending on programming targeting blacks and 82% of spending on Spanish-language television in 2017. The Rudd Center is a research and policy group focused on combating childhood obesity.
Statistics show that nearly 26% of Hispanic youth and 22% of black youth are considered obese, vs. 14% of whites and 11% of Asians, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The worst off, though, were Hispanic boys at 28%.
But is advertising really to blame for the obesity figures reported by the CDC?
The issue is much more complex, according to Dr. Rose Z. Gowen with Su Clínica, a network of health clinics in Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley. The Valley is over 80% Hispanic and one of the poorest regions in the U.S. Over 38% of the population is obese.
“In certain areas that are lower income, cheaper and less healthy products are more readily available and promoted,” Dr. Gowen said. “There are food deserts where without a car, people don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When people don’t have a lot of money, they choose the cheapest options, which usually are not healthy.”
Packaged food advertisers who want to reach the right target for their products are targeting people who shouldn’t be using them.
Citing the Rudd study, CNN reported that only 3% of ad dollars were used to promote healthier food options in general, while programming targeting blacks received just 1% of those dollars and Spanish-language TV received less. They also said that Hispanic youth watching Spanish-language television were pretty much left out when it came to ads for options like nuts and fruits. Instead, nearly 20% of ads viewed were for candy.
I asked Dr. Gowen if restaurants were doing the same thing, and she said they were.
“People want to go out for the simple pleasure of eating with their families — but for it to be affordable, especially for lower income households, it has to be cheap. And back to what I said about packaged goods: Eating out cheap isn’t healthy either,” she said.
A trip to the Rio Grande Valley shows the proliferation of buffet-style restaurants — Asian, pizza, Golden Corral — and packed parking lots show their popularity with locals.
It’s easy to demonize the snack food industry. Based on this study, their marketing dollars are focused on selling less-healthful options to minorities. But they have the opportunity to balance that messaging with more healthful options. Think of the goodwill garnered in the community by balancing the candy and chip ads with some fruit and nut messaging.
It will take more than just some advertising. Dr. Gowen and other health-care practitioners are pushing for more active lifestyles and better food choices. But as marketing professionals, we know how often a message needs to be repeated before it takes hold.
Now, here is the packaged food industry’s chance to start changing the narrative.