How marketers target communities of color with junk food and sugary drinks

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At a San Francisco Board of Supervisors land use committee meeting, BMSG's Fernando Quintero testified on the tactics food and beverage companies use to target low-income communities and communities of color with unhealthy products. The committee heard — and later recommended for adoption — three new sugary drinks bills at the June 1, 2015 meeting. A video and full transcript of Quintero's testimony appear below.


Good afternoon. My name is Fernando Quintero and I am a communication strategist at Berkeley Media Studies Group. Today, I am here to talk to you about the problem of target marketing of sugary drinks to communities of color and low-income families and children.

Communities of color have been the hardest hit by the current epidemic of diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases.1 Meanwhile, communities of color are targeted by marketers of sugary drinks, which contribute to childhood obesity,2 and junk food — products that are high in sugars, salt, and fats.

While target marketing to specific individuals and communities is a routine business practice, many foods and beverages marketed to communities of color are likely to increase disease risk or interfere with management of chronic conditions — especially in the absence of healthier food and beverage options.

For example, a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that African American communities were among groups most disproportionately exposed to child-directed marketing displays at fast food restaurants.3 Children who eat fast food are likely to consume more total calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages. And they're less likely to meet dietary recommendations for fruits, vegetables and dairy.

African American children and teens saw more than twice as many ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks on TV compared with white children and teens in 2013, according to a report released last fall by Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Just as beverage companies are spending more money to target black youth, they're also pursuing Latino youth, as well as other youth of color. Advertising for sugary drinks and energy shots on Spanish-language TV increased by 44%, the Rudd study found. More than 84% of all foods and beverages advertised to children on Spanish-language TV are unhealthy.

A comprehensive review by the Institute of Medicine concluded that food marketing affects children's food preferences, purchase requests, diets and health. Youth of color get what researchers have termed a "double dose" of unhealthy food and sugary beverage marketing because they are exposed to targeted as well as mainstream campaigns, particularly via digital media, which research shows is consumed by youth of color more frequently than white youth.4 Marketers also target youth of color because they are deemed trendsetters and, therefore, exploited for what marketers call their "brand ambassador" capabilities. In addition, companies exploit the popularity of celebrities of color as role models by hiring them to promote unhealthy food and sugary drinks.5

Marketing is generally understood as depending on 4 Ps: Product, Price, Place and Promotion. Target marketing of food and beverages to communities of color occurs in all four categories. Companies have designed:

  • products especially for communities of color;
  • prices designed to appeal to specific income groups, such as "value menus" targeting low-income communities — price comes into play with target marketing when communities of color are disproportionately represented in poor neighborhoods;
  • places that are saturated with unhealthy food products and promotions, such as zoning in certain communities that allows concentrations of fast-food restaurants or proliferation of outdoor advertising of unhealthy food and sugary beverages6; and
  • promotions that exploit cultural images, symbolism and language to sell products or build brand loyalty.

This target marketing is a problem when the foods and beverages that are marketed using these techniques are unhealthy.

In addition to the 4 Ps, soda companies direct corporate social responsibility campaigns and philanthropic support toward organizations of color that are often strapped for resources, including youth-serving organizations. Some companies also provide important financial support to students of color.

Further complicating matters, these companies in their marketing have long promoted positive images of people of color — something sadly lacking in other media.

But all this support from food and sugary beverage companies does not negate the fact that their products have contributed to the devastatingly higher rates of diet-related diseases in communities of color.

What can we do about target marketing of junk food to communities of color?

Because communities of color are specifically targeted by the sugary beverage and junk food industries, a targeted approach is needed to address the marketing of their unhealthy products, especially to children and youth. We must ensure that responsibility begins with those who produce and present marketing of unhealthy products. It is a shared responsibility.

We can strengthen nutrition standards at the federal, state and local levels.

We can improve labeling information that gives consumers a fair chance at making healthier choices.

We can impose excise fees, like the one successfully passed in Berkeley, to fund programs aimed at reducing the health harms brought on by unhealthy food and shift consumption to healthier drinks.

We must cover all forms of marketing to include packaging, sponsorship, schools, toys, mobile devices, and much more.

In the end, we must reduce exposure to unhealthy beverages and food, especially among kids suffering the most. The aggressive marketing of food and beverage products that are proven harmful is unfair to our most vulnerable communities, especially children, and must change.


1. Committee on Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine. (2012). Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation. Available from Accessed March 11, 2015.

2. Malik V.S., Popkin B.M., Bray G.A., Despres J.P., Willett W.C., & Hu F.B. (2010). Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis. Diabetes Care 33(11):2477-2483.

3. Ohri-Vachaspati P., Isgor Z., Rimkus L., Powell L., Barker D., & Chaloupka F. (2014). Child-Directed Marketing Inside and on the Exterior of Fast Food Restaurants. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 48(1): 22-30.

4. Grier S. (2009, June). African-American and Hispanic youth vulnerability to target marketing: Implications for understanding the effects of digital marketing. Memo prepared for the second NPLAN/BMSG meeting on digital media and marketing to children, Berkeley, CA. Available from: Accessed March 16, 2015.

5. Montgomery K.C. & Chester J. (2009). Interactive food and beverage marketing: Targeting adolescents in the digital age. Journal of Adolescent Health. 45(3 Suppl):S18-29.

6. Ohri-Vachaspati P. op cit.

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