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Such marketing is also a racial and health equity issue because junk food companies specifically target children and youth of color. Understanding and communicating effectively about this type of targeted marketing is a critical step toward achieving health equity.
Research shows that our preferences for food are established when we are very young,2 so advocates are increasingly recognizing and concerned about the harms of junk food marketing to kids.
We wanted to know: When advocates communicate about junk food marketing, do they talk about health equity? To find out, we analyzed reports, websites and other materials from organizations around the country that are working on issues related to food marketing.
We found some mention of the disproportionate amount of junk food marketing targeting children and youth of color, but we also identified many gaps in that discussion. In this framing brief, we describe what we learned, show why children of color should be at the forefront of our conversations about and actions to reduce target marketing, and suggest how we all can get better at discussing this critical public health and social justice issue.
What is it and why does it matter? Communities of color have been the hardest hit by diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases. Food marketing is one serious obstacle to healthy eating patterns that can help prevent these disease risks.
Food and beverage companies aggressively target communities of color with marketing for foods and drinks that are low in nutrition and high in sugars, salt and fats — the very foods and beverages that contribute to these diseases.
With the rise of digital technology, targeted marketing for sugary sodas, energy drinks, salty snacks, candy and fast food has become especially pervasive.
Food and beverage companies align their marketing practices with the ways that consumers use social media, cell phones, gaming platforms and other digital devices to target consumers wherever they are at all hours of the day, particularly on their mobile devices, where marketers concentrate their spending.
Using digital tools, marketers collect an unending stream of data about purchases, location, preferences, behaviors and more. Those data can exacerbate inequalities because they are shaped by current and past discriminatory policies and practices.
For example, Jim Crow laws such as redlining have kept people of color out of certain neighborhoods5, 6 and limited their access to affordable, fresh and healthy food. That impacts purchasing patterns, since where people live — and the products made available to them there — influences what food people prefer and buy.
Once a community has shown a preference for a product, the food and beverage industry then uses purchasing data to inform additional spending to continue marketing that product, regardless of whether it is healthy.
This pattern reinforces inequities and keeps communities of color on the receiving end of junk food marketing, which cements adverse health outcomes in the future.
A digital bull's-eye on kids of color Data mining is even more problematic when it is used to target children, who are especially vulnerable to advertising.
A child's online viewing and activity data can be used instantly to determine what content they'll be shown — and what junk food ads they'll be served — in the future.
Since kids of color are at the vanguard of using digital media, their exposure to digital marketing is even higher. Youth of color get what researchers call a "double dose" of unhealthy food and sugary beverage marketing because they are exposed to mainstream campaigns aimed at all children and youth as well as campaigns targeted to their own communities.
In practice, that means that, for example, Black children and teens end up seeing more than twice as many ads for energy drinks and regular soda compared with white children and teens, and 60 percent more fast-food ads.
According to the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth, young people of color "are trendsetters and tastemakers for young consumers of all races. S Chief Marketing Officer, they "set the tone for how [companies] enter the marketplace. Innovations that marketers use to target certain demographics more precisely often go under the radar, especially in their early phases.
Even when companies are transparent about new and emerging tactics, such as when advertising executives showcase their campaigns at industry awards festivals, the health consequences of their practices remain hidden, leaving the public with the false impression that such campaigns are benign. This makes it all the more important for advocates to stay abreast of ever-changing marketing technologies and to communicate their health impacts to the field.
Are children of color included when we talk about junk food marketing?
How advocates frame the issue of target marketing will determine whether the public, policymakers, and even marketers themselves, see the problem. Framing is how our minds recognize patterns of ideas, categorize them and derive meaning from them.
It is the translation process between incoming information — things we see, read or hear — and the ideas already in our heads. Frames influence how people react to ideas, so how an issue is framed can affect whether it has popular or political support; the frame influences what solutions seem viable.
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