More ads may lead to more health disparities for black teens

Black hand on remote finalFood companies are targeting many of their ads to black teens. For example, these corporations advertise in black-targeted media or depict people of color in TV commercials. However, this attention is not necessarily good news.

“It is important that companies are finally recognizing that black youth are important consumers,” said Department of Allied Health Sciences Associate Professor Jennifer Harris. Unfortunately, corollary trends of targeting black teens with TV advertising for only unhealthy food and beverage products, such as fast food, sugary drinks, candy and snacks, and increasing the amount of their exposure to these ads could encourage consumption and result in negative health impacts, according to Harris’ published research in the February 2018 Pediatric Obesity journal.

More television viewing

This comprehensive study, which is the only one of its kind, shows that there are many factors that have led to black teens’ increased exposure to advertising of products that are high in sugar, fat and/or sodium.

One element of the research found that black youth watch more commercial television than white youth. Harris said, “TV viewing by all adolescents has gone down 40 percent since 2013, but declines have been lower for black youth.”

Based on the Nielsen data used in the study, black teens are watching channels that are targeted to black audiences, like Black Entertainment Television (BET). That network shows eight food and beverage ads per hour, compared to The Disney Channel, which has no food advertising.

Black teens view plenty of non-targeted channels, as well. And, adolescents who watch more TV also see more of the accompanying ads.

More commercials shown

Sorting croppedAnother consideration is the number of commercials. “Broadcasting companies have increased the number of ads they show per hour, so viewers see more commercials even if the amount of TV they watch has not increased,” Harris said. She also observed that commercials that used to take 30 seconds are now 15-second commercials and that TV program content has been cut or speeded up to increase the number of commercials that can be shown per hour.

Food companies have made pledges to stop aiming commercials at children when the products fail to meet certain nutritional standards, according to Harris. However, she says there is a loophole because these promises only apply to those under age 12 and not to teens. Because networks not oriented to children have more food ads, it appears that the companies are now using advertising budgets to target teens instead of children.

More influence exerted on teens

In focus groups by Harris and her team, researchers asked low income black and Hispanic teens about their attitudes toward ads that were trying to target them. Responses included, “This brand is for someone like me.” or “I like this marketing.” The researchers found that teens were very influenced by seeing a food or beverage product promoted by someone who looks like them or with whom they identify.

In addition, these advertisements may be more appealing because of their novelty. Harris said that the media doesn’t depict black culture as often. Another factor that makes young people more vulnerable is that they are in a time of life where they explore who they are and what image they want to project, and they use brands to help create their identity.

More health disparities

Other research has shown that marketing of energy-dense and nutrient poor foods and beverages to youth, aged two to 17, contributes to poor diet and associated health problems. It is believed that exposure to such advertisements disproportionately affects the black community who experience “higher rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases,” according to the journal article.

More changes needed

Jennifer Harris
Jennifer Harris

Harris, who has pursued aspects of this topic since her graduate school days, feels strongly about the subject. She is working on an updated report about the targeted marketing of fast food, sugary drinks, candy and snacks. In addition, she is seeking to document what the industry is doing in order that public health advocates can address the harm to health caused by current marketing practices. With the facts, grass roots organizations can pressure companies at the local levels, as well.

A positive measure, which could be taken by food companies, is to strengthen advertising standards that they use when marketing to children under 12 to also cover advertising to older adolescents, according to Harris.

One bright spot gleaned from the focus groups is that teens are not always fooled by marketing ploys. When asked, “How do you know if a brand is targeting you?” some said, “They have people that look like me.” One teen commented that it doesn’t seem fair that the food promoted to her was only of the unhealthy kind. Harris’ research efforts have the ability to change that.

This research was supported by a two-year, $2 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Associate Professor Jennifer Harris. The lead author was Research Associate Frances Fleming-Milici. Both Harris and Fleming-Milici are researchers at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

By Patsy Evans