Anyone who's ever driven past the golden arches with a 5-year-old in the car knows that food advertising creates brand loyalty among even the youngest eaters. Most fast-food chains have child-oriented ads and meals. If parents regularly succumb to the ensuing pleas for french fries and chicken strips, it can affect the child's dietary preferences for years to come.
As I wrote Wednesday, taste preferences are an important contributor to adulthood obesity. Once the link between nuggets and nirvana solidifies in the brain, it can be hard to sever.
In an earlier conversation about food marketing, a New York blogger and activist named Migdalia Rivera told me that she was inspired to join a campaign to pressure McDonald's to stop promoting Ronald McDonald when her son was diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol at age 15.
"One of the difficulties I had was that near his school there were two McDonald's," she told me. "That was a habit he had to learn to break."
A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine offers worrisome evidence that child-centric food marketing affects some kids more than others. Contrary to a popular misconception, the researchers found that most of the 6,716 fast-food restaurants in their sample were located in majority-white neighborhoods. However, it was the restaurants that were located in majority-black neighborhoods that were more likely to market to children.
Overall, the researchers found that a fifth of the eateries marketed to children, with kids' meal toys being the most popular strategy, followed by outdoor-facing ads featuring toys and cartoon characters.
Types of Child-Oriented Marketing
Even though 90 percent of the restaurants were located in majority-white areas, those in lower-middle class and black communities were more likely to use the child-oriented marketing strategies.
Specifically, "restaurants in majority black neighborhoods had almost two times the odds of displaying kids’ meal toys compared to those in white neighborhoods."
As the study authors point out, this is far from an isolated finding:
Previous research has shown that fast food companies target young people living in lower- income communities and communities of color using price promotion and advertisements, and that lower-income and minority children are more likely to be targeted by food advertising, particularly for foods of lower nutritional value including fast food.
Black American adults have the country's highest rate of overweight and obesity. This study might be evidence that black kids are being disproportionately bombarded with fast-food ads, and their diets are being shaped accordingly.
Rivera is not black, but her concerns likely resonate with parents of all racial backgrounds.
"We don't want our kids to view McDonald's as a reward," she said. "Most kids are not going to go to McDonald's to order a salad."