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Report: Rise in fast-food advertising largely targets Black, Hispanic youths

The fast-food industry targets people of color with advertising, contributing to poor dietary habits in these communities, according to a new report. File Photo by bg/Hardee's/UPI
The fast-food industry targets people of color with advertising, contributing to poor dietary habits in these communities, according to a new report. File Photo by bg/Hardee's/UPI | License Photo

June 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. fast-food industry spends some $5 billion a year on advertising, and most of these campaigns target Black and Hispanic youth, according to a report released Thursday by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

By 2019, fast-food advertising spending on Spanish-language television had risen by 33% from 2012 levels. And Black youths in the United States viewed 75% more fast-food ads than their White peers, up from a 60% difference found in 2012.

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On both Spanish-language and Black-targeted television programming, restaurants advertised their low-cost, large-portion value menu items and meal deals more frequently than on other types of programming.

And no healthy menu items were advertised on Spanish-language television, the researchers said.

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This frequent exposure to fast-food marketing increases young people's preferences for, and consumption of, fast food, which is typically high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium, they said.

"Companies put their advertising and marketing dollars behind consumers who they think will buy their products," report co-author Jennifer Harris told UPI in a phone interview.

"Theoretically, it is not a bad thing to target Black and Hispanic communities with advertising, but if what they are selling to them are really unhealthy products that exacerbate existing health disparities in those communities," said Harris, who is senior research adviser for marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.

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Black and Hispanic children and teens in the United States are at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes and obesity due in part to lack of access to healthy foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is further complicated because more than one-third of children in the United States eat fast food on a given day, the Rudd Center researchers estimate.

Although fast-food restaurants have pledged to introduce healthier menu items, these voluntary policies have had little effect on purchases, earlier studies by the center suggest.

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Children's purchasing patterns often mirror the ads they see, with the vast majority of ads viewed by children promoting less healthy and higher portion items on their regular menus, researchers said.

For this report, they analyzed 2019 Nielsen data that covers advertising spending and television advertising exposure for 274 fast-food restaurants.

The review included detailed analyses of the 27 top fast-food advertisers with the highest annual advertising spending targeted to children, as well as Hispanic and Black consumers overall.

Based on the Nielsen data, children ages 2 to 5 saw an average of 830 television ads for fast food over the course of the year, while children ages 6 to 11 years viewed 787 ads, and teens ages 12 to 17 viewed 775.

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Nearly all of these ads promoted full-calorie, regular menu items or the restaurants in general, while just 1% of them promoted restaurants' healthier menu items, the researchers said.

In addition, 10% of the ads viewed by children appeared during children's television programming, and fewer than 10% of ads promoted kids' meals.

Many of the restaurants promoted their mobile apps or websites for digital orders in the ads, researchers said.

The industry's annual ad spending has increased by more than $400 million since 2012, and fast-food now represents 40% of all food and beverage marketing expenditures targeted at children and teens ages 2 to 17.

As a result of this rise in spending, children and teens view, on average, more than two fast-food television ads per day.

"Companies spend tons of money on research so they know how to convince young people that they have to have these products, that they taste great, so it's really hard to combat that," Harris said.

"When we talk to parents, most don't realize how much advertising is targeted to their kids, so if we can raise awareness of that parents will be more able to raise these issues with their kids," she said.

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