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Study: "Junk Food" Marketing  Promotes Unhealthy Habits Among African Americans

By Maggie Barrett

 Targeted marketing of high-calorie foods and beverages exposes African Americans—compared to Caucasians or the general population—to more unhealthy messages about eating and limits their access to healthy foods finds a new study by Sonya Grier, an associate professor of marketing at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

The overall effects of these marketing strategies may contribute to the significantly higher rates of obesity among African Americans than among Caucasians, said Grier.

“It’s hard to make healthy choices when all the signals and supports in your environment tell you to do just the opposite,” she said.  “One way to make a dent in the obesity epidemic is to reverse those messages so that marketing efforts support healthier eating among African Americans.”

The study, funded by the University of Pennsylvania’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is the first to take a comprehensive view of food marketing strategies aimed at African Americans.  Study researchers considered the four “Ps”used by food and beverage marketers to reach particular target markets:  

1.    Products that are offered to a market
2.    Promotions, including advertising and other types of persuasive communication
3.    Place, referring to the distribution and availability of specific products
4.    Price

The researchers conducted a systematic review of published studies to identify the 20 that permitted comparisons of food and beverage marketing strategies to African Americans versus other groups.  Despite a limited evidence base, they found that African Americans are more frequently exposed to food promotion and distribution patterns that support unhealthy eating habits.

Grier says that food companies and marketers should consider how targeted marketing strategies may contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in obesity.  In addition, she recommends that African American media pursue healthier product sponsors and actively seek out healthy food promotions, and that communities advocate for greater access to healthy foods, including supermarkets and farmers’ markets.

The study, “The Context for Choice: Health Implications of Targeted Food and Beverage Marketing to African Americans,” was published in the September 2008 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.  It was coauthored by Shiriki K. Kumanyika, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.