The Marketing of Unhealthy Food and Beverages in African-American Communities

Generating community-partnered research on obesity in black communities

Dates of Project October 2005 through August 2015

Description: The African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network—through literature reviews, original research, and research collaborations with other RWJF grantees—has filled important gaps in the evidence about the disproportionate marketing of unhealthy foods in black communities through heightened availability, targeted advertising and promotions, and other methods. They also shed light on how these factors influence purchases of high-calorie, low-nutrition food by black adults and youth and how diverse black community stakeholders perceive the need for change in these business practices.

“Instead of looking at people through the problem, we try to understand the people and then see where the problem or issue is situated within their lives.”—Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, founder of the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network

The network also created a pilot, teenager-led counter marketing campaign—Shaping Our Health by Influencing Food Trends, or SHIFTDemand and collaborated with other organizations to explore ways that pricing strategies, such as discounts, influence black shoppers’ purchases of healthy foods and beverages.

Key Findings

  • For black American adults and youth of diverse education and income levels in four cities—Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago; and Durham, N.C.—price was cited as the primary determinant in food-purchasing decisions. Taste, convenience, and quality were important secondary concerns.
  • Caregivers in Birmingham were convinced that all types of food marketing contributed to unhealthy eating in black youth and were aware that ads were targeted to the youth. However, views about the overall impact of food companies on black communities were mixed due to factors such as loyalty to companies that sponsored local events or scholarships as well as uncertainty about how much weight should be given to parental vs food company responsibility (Public Health Nutrition).
  • Adults in Baltimore emphasized the effectiveness of commercials, billboard ads, and coupons as enticements to teens to consume high-calorie foods especially in light of the lack of nutrition education they receive (Appetite).
  • Children’s exposure to television advertisements for sugar-sweetened beverages was higher in local media markets with higher proportions of black children in the population and higher in media markets with lower median incomes. In media markets with higher proportions of black children and adolescents and lower median household income, exposure to television advertisements was significantly greater for fast-food restaurants, compared with full-service restaurants (Health & Place).
  • Low-income African-American shoppers in Philadelphia were more likely to purchase sweet or grain-based snacks and sugar sweetened beverages when they were on sale vs. not on sale. The likelihood of purchasing fruits or vegetables on sale was not significantly different than when they were at full price (Preventing Chronic Disease).
  • Data from focus groups and interviews with black consumers in three cities, policymakers serving black communities in two cities, and food retailers serving black communities in three cities highlighted varying perspectives on the complexities of stimulating consumer demand for marketing of a healthier product mix in local retail outlets. All raised issues of fairness and many raised issues of the need to protect the viability of businesses serving black communities (webinar and unpublished reports to RWJF).
  • The African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network plans to publish an index to score food environments in counties and states with guidance for assessments at the neighborhood or community level.