One hundred and six million people tuned in to watch the Broncos take on the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl; almost as many saw the McDonald’s ad that ran during the game, featuring a dunk contest between basketball stars LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Using athletes to sell burgers — especially to reach a young audience — is nothing new. Neither is using black celebrities to target young people of color. (The LeBron James ad was itself a tacit nod to a McDonald’s ad that pitted Michael Jordan against Larry Bird back in 1993.)
What’s different today is that marketing by the junk food industry directed at African-American and Latino youth has increased in scope, scale and savvy. Americans may be increasingly aware of the health consequences of consuming fast food and sugary drinks, but target marketing is on the rise — and it’s everywhere: Not just on television but in classrooms, in neighborhoods, on social media. It happens in obvious ways, through big-budget TV ads, and in subtle ways, through peers enlisted as brand ambassadors. Referring to young people of color, Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, explained to me, “Marketing is integrated in all aspects of their lives.”
This is particularly alarming because young African Americans and Latinos are also experiencing diet-related disease at higher rates than their white peers.
While obesity among all young people has more than quadrupled over the past four decades — from just 5 percent among 6-to-19-year-olds in the 1960s to 19.6 percent in 2008 — rates among African-American and Latino youth have outpaced those of white youth. The statistics are most alarming for African-American teenage girls: Among those ages 12 to 19, nearly 1 in 3 were obese in 2008, the highest prevalence by age, gender, race or ethnicity.
Diabetes among young people is way up, too. In less than a decade, we saw a 21 percent increase of Type 1 diabetes diagnoses among children up to age 19 and a 30 percent increase for Type 2 diabetes. But African-Americans are much more likely to develop diabetes than their white peers: A white boy born in the year 2000 has a 26.7 percent risk of being diagnosed with diabetes in his lifetime — quite high — but a black girl born the same year has nearly double that risk.
As Carol Hazen, director of advocacy resources for the Food Marketing Initiative at the Rudd Center, told me, “When you add together target marketing and the disparate rates of diet-related diseases, what you have is a social justice issue.”
A ‘double dose’ of marketing
Marketing junk food and sugary drinks to children and teens is big business: The industry reports spending nearly $2 billion a year on youth marketing.
While the industry doesn’t self-report what percentage of that is used in marketing efforts specifically aimed at the African-American and Latino markets, it’s explicit that it does this kind of targeting. Coca-Cola has a VP of multicultural marketing; General Mills has a marketing manager for Que Rica Vida. PepsiCo has a head of multicultural marketing and music strategy. Rob Jackson, marketing director at McDonald’s, told Advertising Age about his company’s efforts to talk to consumers “through a cultural lens.”
The deployment of such a lens means young people of color get what Sonya Grier, a professor of marketing at American University, calls a “double dose” of marketing. They’re exposed to general marketing and to the stuff targeted directly at them. African-American youth, for example, see 80 to 90 percent more ads for sugary drinks than white children do, according to a 2011 study from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
McDonald’s is an industry leader in this market segmentation. The company is one of the biggest fast-food advertisers to young people, especially with its recently rebranded Ronald McDonald (think: more spiffy, less creepy). It also markets to the black community through its 365Black.com platform (created by the company as a “social space for celebrating African American history and culture 365 days a year”) and through sponsored events such as the Inspirational Celebration Gospel Tour, a multicity concert featuring Grammy Award winners and Billboard chart toppers.
Ronald McDonald – a character designed to hook kids on high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar food – could go the way of Joe Camel if parents, teachers and consumer advocates spoke up.
Youth of color living in low-income communities are also exposed to greater place-based marketing. We might think of this as the triple dose. As Dorfman told me, “It’s a combination of more exposure and targeted content leading to an impact that’s different than their white peers’.” There are no billboards on my street, but drive six blocks and one major intersection away, into a predominantly black neighborhood, and billboards dot the street, many of them for junk food.
Food and beverage companies also exploit schools that lack resources to brandish their brands. Schools often sell exclusive pouring rights contracts with a beverage company; the contracts require that schools sell only a certain brand of soda and set sales quotas that schools must meet to receive the promised financial benefits. According to a national survey of public schools in 2005, almost half of elementary schools and roughly 80 percent of high schools had a pouring rights contract with a soda company.
Schools in low-income communities are targeted in other ways too: Students can learn math through the Oreo Cookie Counting Book and Hershey’s Kisses Multiplication Book. Teachers can download free curricula, such as The Story of Coca-Cola, a history of the company dressed up as reading comprehension.
Underresourced schools are also more likely to open their doors to food advertisers disguising marketing as charity. There’s My Coke Rewards, in which schools are enlisted in a soda-marketing program with the promise of earning much-needed equipment and supplies. (You don’t get very much bang for your buck, though. Schools would need to collectively buy 55,440 cans of Coke just to earn enough points for My Coke Rewards’ Physical Activity Pack, which includes balls, jump ropes and other sports equipment.)
And there are McDonald’s free in-school programs, too, such as Giving Back With Ronald McDonald and Book Time With Ronald McDonald. While these programs might seem like a simple way to raise resources or receive free programming, Hazen told me, “McDonald’s knows they’re building brand recognition that can earn them consumers for life.”
Retiring Ronald McDonald
Much of this target marketing goes unseen precisely because it’s so targeted; 106 million of us might have seen that LeBron James Super Bowl ad, but a lot of the marketing you will see only if you’re the target. When I log in to my Facebook account — a white mom with two kids — ads pop up for West Elm and Diapers.com. That’s not what my friend’s African-American teenage daughter sees on her Facebook feed.
The food industry likes to claim its First Amendment right to market to whom it wants, in whatever ways it wants, though legal scholars debate whether this kind of advertising is really a form of protected speech. There is precedent for policies that limit commercial speech when it’s causing harm — in this case, to public health. Joe Camel, the mascot for Camel cigarettes, is no longer enticing kids with his cartoon coolness; neither are beer company Anheuser-Busch’s signature frogs, which media analysts said were designed to appeal to kids. In both these cases, consumer groups successfully rallied to protect youth from this marketing. The same could be done for Ronald McDonald — a character whose sole intent is to hook kids on the brand and the company’s high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar fast food — if parents, teachers and consumer advocates spoke up.
Even short of policy reform, celebrity role models — I’m talking to you, Beyoncé and LeBron — can use their platform to promote health, not products. Corporate Accountability International (full disclosure: I am a strategic adviser) has launched a #SlamJunk campaign to encourage LeBron and other celebrities to stand up for the health and welfare of young people and reject McDonald’s marketing deals.
On May 22, McDonald’s shareholders met at the company’s annual meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois, where the company announced weaker-than-expected profits in its most recent quarter. It’s time that McDonald’s — and other fast-food giants — hear that target marketing is a liability. “In the United States, there are deep and persistent racial inequalities in health,” Yale assistant professor of sociology Rene Almeling has said. “One of the potential consequences of directing such advertising to African-American and Latino children is that those inequalities will continue into the next generation.”
It’s no wonder, then, that more and more public health advocates are putting such companies in their cross hairs in order to protect the most vulnerable members of our society: young people.