Ads for brands like McDonald’s and Sprite often target people of color

Think about the last time you saw a commercial for a “health” food — yogurt, Vitaminwater, orange juice. Chances are the star of the ad was white. Actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis, Jennifer Aniston, and Jane Krakowski have all appeared in such ads in recent years. Conversely, commercials promoting fast food and soft drinks often feature African Americans. McDonald’s, in fact, has included black people in its ads for decades. Sprite has a similar history, using both rappers and basketball players to hawk its products.

Aarti Ivanic, an associate professor of marketing at the University of San Diego’s School of Business, says this is likely no coincidence. She’s examined the role that race plays in food marketing in research articles like “To Choose (Not) to Eat Healthy: Social Norms, Self‐Affirmation, and Food Choice,” and finds that brands perpetuate racial stereotypes about food consumption by marketing healthful foods to white audiences, and fast and junk foods to black and Hispanic people.

Advertising food in this way, according to Ivanic, may be one of the many factors (along with food deserts, poverty, and race-related stress) contributing to the disproportionate amount of obesity in communities of color. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Hispanic (47 percent) and black populations (46.8 percent) have the greatest age-adjusted rate of obesity. Meanwhile, the prevalence of obesity for white people is 37.9 percent, and for Asian Americans it is 12.7 percent.

Changing how food is marketed and to whom could alter the perception that it’s just natural for people of color to consume foods that lead to unhealthy weight gain and all the drawbacks associated with it — from Type 2 diabetes to heart disease and cancer. Vox spoke with Ivanic about the potential consequences of marketing low-quality foods to people of color.

Nadra Nittle

How would you sum up your research?

Aarti Ivanic

Healthier foods are promoted to whiter, affluent people, and some of the research shows that unhealthy food tends to be marketed in venues where you’ve got lower-income people, where you’ve got African Americans, where you’ve got Hispanics.

When you look at commercials for junk food, McDonald’s, soda, chips, you see more African Americans than Caucasians. Caucasians are targeted in ads like for Vita water, for example, but you’ll see more of the [junk food] ads on BET or on radio stations aimed toward a [lower-income] demographic. Whether that’s conscious or not, the research shows it intersects.

Nadra Nittle

What impact do these ads have on consumers?

Aarti Ivanic

Psychologically, we tend to associate with people who look like us. So if you’ve got these ads for unhealthy foods marketed toward a particular group, and you’re African American, you begin to think it’s normal for African Americans to eat unhealthy foods. Obesity now spans across races, but minorities are more overweight and obese.

I live in a food desert in San Diego, with no grocery store but several fast-food restaurants. If you’re lower-income, that’s the target market. You are going to get the $1 meal at Taco Bell. Sometimes I feel these companies deliberately do that. They know people in these neighborhoods are lower-income and can’t afford better food; it keeps reinforcing social norms. Marketing is one angle of social justice and food justice.

Nadra Nittle

Which came first, the food marketing or the race-based food stereotypes?

Aarti Ivanic

People will say that if you think about this country, African Americans used to live in the South. They eat certain kinds of foods and the diet is heavier in butter. That really bugs me. Society has worked off those stereotypes. It’s a never-ending cycle. There are multiple layers: There are racial issues, socioeconomic issues, or it has to do with education. These are all intersections. You’ve got multiple identities playing off one another.

Nadra Nittle

If marketing junk food to blacks and healthier foods to whites is profitable, can we expect brands to change how they advertise?

Aarti Ivanic

Therein lies the challenge. Their main goal is to make money. You have a white actress like Jane Lynch appearing in coconut water ads, but you can expand. Put someone who’s African American, Hispanic, or Asian in these ads. Put someone from a different social group in these commercials. It’s in the mindset. How can I go out and gain more customers? I think it needs to be part of our national conversation. We need to rally around and be passionate about these issues. If [two-thirds] of Americans are overweight or obese, this has long-term implications.

Nadra Nittle

You’ve discussed how brands get it wrong when it comes to food marketing and race, but are any getting it right, showing diverse groups of food eating healthfully?

Aarti Ivanic

I’ve seen some commercials for [California grocery stores] showing African-American families preparing dinner together, preparing the food at home, making the point that it’s not just Caucasians who do that; it’s also African Americans. So I do think companies are making strides.

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