A new study examining marketing tactics aimed at children has found that fast food restaurants disproportionately target minority youth living in middle- to lower-income neighborhoods and rural communities. The research will be published in the December edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Led by Arizona State University researcher Dr. Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, the study is the first to examine the use of such child-directed marketing by fast food restaurants and its relationship to demographics. It adds to a substantial body of literature on the effects of various marketing efforts on fast food consumption and their relationship to health outcomes in children.
In the United States, fast food is the second largest source of total energy in the diets of children and adolescents, providing 13 percent of total calories consumed by 2- to 18-year-olds. Every day, almost a third of children aged 2 to 11 years and more than 40 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds consume food and drinks from fast food restaurants.
“Fast food companies in the U.S. spend nearly a quarter of their marketing budgets targeting youth aged 2 to 17 years,” said Dr. Ohri-Vachaspati, an associate professor of nutrition in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at Arizona State University. “In 2009, fast food restaurants spent more than $700 million to market their products to children and adolescents; nearly half of the amount went toward premiums such as kids’ meal toys.”
Marketing tactics disproportionately target minority communities
For the study, researchers from Arizona State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Barker Bi-Coastal Health Consultants, Inc., analyzed 6,716 fast food restaurants around the country. The researchers studied fast food chains with at least 20 restaurants, and did not distinguish between corporate-owned and franchised outfits.
The study looked at interior marketing tactics, like play areas and displays of meal toys, and exterior strategies, like posters of cartoon and movie characters and images of toys displayed outside the restaurants. The study did not analyze advertisements for children in the media, including tactics like TV commercials and digital ads.
The researchers found that one-fifth of the fast food restaurants they studied utilized the in-store child-directed marketing tactics they were looking for. And the stores that did were more likely to be located in certain communities: Fast food restaurants in predominantly black neighborhoods were about 67 percent more likely to use child-directed marketing than those in white neighborhoods.
Fast food restaurants in poor neighborhoods used child-directed marketing about 4 percent more than restaurants in high-income neighborhoods, the researchers found, while restaurants in middle-income neighborhoods (defined as the 25th-75th percentile of median incomes) were 28 to 34 percent more likely to use interior and exterior marketing focused on children than restaurants in upper-income neighborhoods.
Chain restaurants were more than 6 times more likely to use these strategies than independent restaurants, the researchers found. Additionally, restaurants in rural areas were 40 percent more likely to use these tactics than those in urban areas.
Dr. Ohri-Vachaspati said she can’t explain why fast food companies are targeting minority children from middle- and lower-income communities. “However,” she added, “based on previous research, we know that these communities are more likely to consume fast food, have poorer access to healthy options and have higher rates of obesity.” Indeed, research overwhelmingly demonstrates that fast food companies market directly to poor and minority communities with few other choices for affordable, convenient food.
Self-regulatory efforts not making the grade
Dr. Ohri-Vachaspati said she hopes that the findings compel the fast-food industry to “limit children’s exposure to marketing that promotes unhealthy food choices.”
“Marketing food to children is of great concern not only because it affects their current consumption patterns, but also because it may affect their taste and preferences,” she said. “We know that consumption of fast food in children may lead to obesity or poorer health, and that low income and minority children eat fast food more often.”
In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that the food industry spends almost $10 billion per year marketing food and beverages in the U.S. that appeal to children and adolescents, including $1.6 billion to target children and adolescents directly with soft drinks, fast-food, and cereal promotions. Three years earlier, in 2005, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that food marketing directly contributes to unhealthy diets and risk of poor health among American children and youth.
According to Dr. Ohri-Vachaspati, while several major U.S. food and beverage companies and fast food restaurants have created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and taken other steps to encourage marketing of healthier food and beverage choices to children, there’s room for major improvement.
“Despite the self-regulatory efforts, a stronger push for providing and marketing only healthy foods to children is needed, especially in disadvantaged populations,” she said. “We know that fast food is convenient and inexpensive and is often used by parents to provide quick meals to their children. We want to make it easier for parents and children, especially those at greater risk for poor diet and health, to make healthier choices by marketing only healthy food options that meet dietary guidelines to children.”
The next step, said Dr. Ohri-Vachaspati, is to translate these findings into practice to improve current regulatory standards. “Another goal of the study is to track patterns. As marketing strategies targeting children in media are restricted as part of self-regulation, an increase in such efforts may or may not occur at restaurants. We’d like to present evidence to inform future industry and public policy initiatives.”