Advertisers Targeting Communities of Color Leads to Obesity, Researchers Say

Junk food ads disproportionately target black and Hispanic kids, Researchers Say

By Liz Spurrell-Huss, LCSW, MPH and Nicole Hollingsworth, EdD, MCHES, Montefiore’s Community and Population Health department.

HEALTH- It is no secret that more and more New Yorkers are obese and being diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure. 

To address this concern, public health practitioners are examining how the role of the food environment – including the availability and marketing of unhealthy foods, contributes to obesity and related diseases. 

Given the prevalence of unhealthy food options in many communities of color, it is important to understand what is really responsible for driving the demand for unhealthy products in local communities like the Bronx, which has the highest rates in New York City. 

Food, beverage and restaurant companies spend almost $14 billion per year on advertising in the United States, and more than 86% of this advertising promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks. Young people are specifically targeted with advertising for the least healthy products. According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Black and Hispanic youth are exposed to more food advertising in the media and in their communities than their White counterparts. 

Montefiore researchers have found that unhealthy ad exposure, particularly on public transportation in the Bronx, was directly correlated with poverty and lower high-school graduation rates, and /or higher percentages of Hispanics and children. Sadly, this is yet another local example of purposeful and planned inequitable treatment of low -income communities of color in NYC.

Images and language that are region-specific and popular in youth culture are used as a way of making the products relatable, giving the appearance that food companies support the goals of the community. Marketing to youth is intentionally crafted to include celebrities and athletes to appeal to their aspirations. The prevailing argument for the placement of this advertising is that residents in these communities buy these products so marketing them is appropriate, regardless of the poor health outcomes in these areas.  

The multi-sector Bronx Bodega Partners Workgroup (BBW) has partnered with local bodegas since 2016 to increase availability of healthy foods and beverages.   To better drive demand of healthy products to these stores, the BBW has also worked with local community groups, including young people, to develop the “Don’t Stress, Eat Fresh” Bronx bodegas marketing campaign.  The marketing collateral materials include the names and addresses of specific stores participating in the Healthy Bodega program where people can purchase healthier items.

This campaign seeks to counter the marketing of unhealthy food that disproportionately target underserved communities through a vibrant, bilingual Bronx-focused media campaign that represents the community in a meaningful way. 

The campaign includes branded print and digital images and that are displayed on bus shelter/public transit and other paid advertising locations and promotes consumption of fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk products, water, healthy sandwiches and snacks, and The Bronx Salad. 

The “Don’t Stress, Eat Fresh” campaign was developed in partnership with community youth and promotes items that improve the health and wellbeing of the borough, unlike the marketing by food and beverage companies that claim to represent the community. 

Local government can fulfill its responsibility to protect the public from misinformation and serve as an important tool to combat misleading advertising.  Contact your elected officials and ask them to support and fund the Don’t Stress, Eat Fresh Bronx bodega campaign so honest and healthy information is shared with our neighbors, friends, and families. 

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