Fast food companies pour a lot of money into marketing, and it appears that they have made some very deliberate choices as to which consumers they are targeting.
Research from Arizona State University (ASU) shows that fast food restaurants are disproportionately advertising their food to children and middle-income, black, and rural communities, which may actually be exacerbating poverty and malnutrition issues. Children who eat fast food typically have poorer health outcomes, and the fact that fast food is heavily marketed toward younger demographics plays a perpetual role in developing unhealthy lifestyles — costing us trillions in associated costs.
“Fast food companies in the U.S. spend nearly a quarter of their marketing budgets targeting youth aged two to 17 years,” said Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, an associate professor of nutrition in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion at ASU and author of the study. “In 2009, fast food restaurants spent more than $700 million to market their products to children and adolescents; nearly half of the amount went toward premiums such as kids’ meal toys.”
The study mentions that fast food is the second largest source for energy in the diets of kids and adolescents, and provides 13% of the total calories consumed by individuals between the age of two and 18. A third of children between the ages of two and 11, and over 40% of individuals between 12 and 19 will consume food and drinks from fast food establishments on a daily basis. Obviously, to reach those percentages, fast food companies need to be forking over quite a bit in marketing expenses. According to a Yale study from 2010, fast food companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars in 2006 alone, specifically targeting children.
“In 2006, fast food restaurants spent approximately $300 million in marketing specifically designed to reach young people, more than any food category except for carbonated beverages,” the study says. “30 fast food restaurants spent as much as marketers of juices, non-carbonated beverages and snack foods combined, and nearly two-and-a-half times the amount spent for candy and frozen desserts.”
Sounds like fast food companies are trying to hook ‘em while they’re young.
If that sounds like something out of the tobacco industry playbook, that’s because it’s pretty similar. Of course, tobacco isn’t the only industry to target children, and fast food companies certainly won’t be the last. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Joe Camel and Ronald McDonald, the difference being that tobacco use has a well-earned reputation for leading to death and chronic disease, while that has yet to stick for fast food.
According to research from the University of Minnesota, that may soon need to change, as people who eat fast food are far more likely to die from heart disease. “People who consume fast food even once a week increase their risk of dying from coronary heart disease by 20% in comparison to people who avoid fast food,” The university’s research finds. “For people eating fast food two to three times each week, the risk increases by 50%, and the risk climbs to nearly 80% for people who consume fast food items four or more times each week.”
Add that to the fact that one out of every four deaths in America is caused by heart disease, and suddenly the deliberate targeting of children by fast food companies becomes a much more serious matter.
“Marketing food to children is of great concern not only because it affects their current consumption patterns, but also because it may affect their taste and preferences,” said Ohri-Vachaspati, of ASU. “We know that consumption of fast food in children may lead to obesity or poorer health, and that low income and minority children eat fast food more often.”
Not only that, but the ASU study found that while most of the restaurants they looked at were in white-majority neighborhoods, the ones that were located in middle-income neighborhoods, rural communities and majority black neighborhoods were more likely to be targeting children with their outdoor and indoor advertisements.
Again, this may not be all that surprising when you think about it, but when you actually take all the ramifications into account, the direct targeting of children by fast food companies could have major costs to society in terms of public health. Not only that, but we know that fast food is a very unhealthy choice, but we choose to ignore the risks and continuously go back. That’s a behavior that needs to be reversed, or future generations will be the ones to suffer as a result.
Making an easy buck today by selling incredibly unhealthy food to children will cost us all a lot of money at some point, even if we’re simply kicking the proverbial can down the road for now.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger