When college students Christal Yu and Ang Lama came across the ad campaign, they decided to take the company at its word. Instead of buying into the reverse psychology of the “Don’t eat Takis” slogan, Lama and Yu created their own marketing campaign encouraging teens to ditch the high-sodium snack altogether.
Yu and Lama, now 23 and 19, respectively, were working on counter-marketing strategy as part of the City University of New York’s Food Justice Leadership Fellowship, which trains young people to counter the blitz of fast-food marketing. The two landed on Takis because the snack was ubiquitous in their New York high schools and because it embodied junk food companies’ problematic marketing strategy: to target Black and brown youth, without communicating any of the well-established health risks.
So Lama and Yu did what any angry young people might: They made memes, including using a popular format to depict the actor John Cena saying, “They can’t see me poisoning low-income Black and brown teens to make money from Takis.”
They presented their marketing to other fellows at CUNY, which sent the images around to youth organization partners, and then as students, moved on to their next assignment. It was a small but passionate effort to push back against the onslaught of fast-food marketing—and given the absence of government regulations against junk food giants, it was the best they could do.
Black children and teens viewed about 75 percent more fast-food TV ads in 2019 than their white peers, up from 60 percent more in 2012, according to a June report from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The report also found that between 2012 and 2019, fast-food restaurants increased ad spending on Spanish-language TV by 33 percent, and the number of ads viewed by Hispanic preschoolers and children increased 2 percent and 7 percent, respectively. (While there isn’t much data on fast-food marketing to Asian youth, the Rudd report notes a recent uptick in fast-food restaurants near less affluent schools with student bodies predominantly of color.)
Fast-food ads across mediums reach kids under 18 widely, but kids of color, particularly Black youth, get kind of a “triple dose,” says Sonya A. Grier, a marketing professor at American University. “They see things heavily targeted to them as youth, plus things targeted to them as Black youth, and then things targeted to Black adults in general—since we know [kids] always look aspirationally at what adults are receiving,” she says.
For Black and Latino communities that already have higher rates of diabetes and obesity, fast-food advertising adds another layer to health inequities that can become intergenerational. “For underserved populations like African Americans and Latino Americans, we see a lot more patients with family members who struggle with weight-related conditions,” says Dr. Veronica Johnson of Northwestern Medicine.
Aron Gonzalez, who grew up in a Black and brown neighborhood in the Bronx and participated in a separate food justice program through CUNY, said he started to care about fast-food ads after noticing health issues in his community. “Some of my personal friends’ family members had to get their legs amputated, [because] they had severe cases of diabetes. And I always wondered what led to that,” he says.
But where people in underserved communities and their care providers see health problems, food companies see big business. The proliferation of online media has allowed advertisers to more specifically target people based on their browsing histories and other online activity.
A May report from the Center of Digital Democracy (CDD) found that communities of color have “buying power” of $3.9 trillion, with the fast-food industry lured by their relative youth, since they have a lower median age than white Americans. “Young people are at the forefront of using digital media, and young people of color, based on surveys, are often at the forefront of the forefront,” says CDD director Jeffrey Chester.
“The biggest marketers to kids right now are Google and Facebook.”
The huge targeting capabilities make social media companies major players in marketing to kids too. “The biggest marketers to kids right now are Google and Facebook,” says Lori Dorfman, director of the nonprofit Berkeley Media Studies Group.
Yet some advocates see changes on the horizon. In a year when Congress rolled out an ambitious package of legislation to curb the powers of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, Chester is optimistic that the Federal Trade Commission—now led by Biden appointee and consumer protection champion Lina Khan—will set tougher regulations on digital marketing to kids.
The federal government’s approach on junk-food advertising to kids has generally been weak. In 2009, Congress approved an interagency working group to set voluntary nutritional standards, not rules, for advertising to kids. When the group released draft standards in 2011, lobbying from about 30 food companies killed the proposal.
Past bills in Congress to end the tax subsidy for junk-food advertising to kids, which companies can deduct as business expenses, also fell flat. And while the FTC’s 2012 review of food marketing to kids in TV, radio, and print diagnosed the problem—reporting that 48 companies put $1.79 billion into youth food marketing in 2009 alone—it didn’t call for hard rules.
Instead, the FTC report declared that “food industry self-regulation is beginning to bring about important changes in the marketing of foods to children under 12,” endorsing initiatives like the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), launched in 2007, which sets guidelines by which companies police themselves.
But self-regulation has been narrow in scope. CFBAI focuses on ads to kids under 12, even though the under-12 age group is “not where most fast-food restaurants are advertising,” says Jennifer L. Harris, senior research advisor at the Rudd Center. Of the group’s 19 participating companies, only two are fast food: McDonald’s and Burger King. And racial disparities in ad targeting don’t factor into CFBAI guidelines.
Fast-food companies themselves don’t tackle racial disparities in their own marketing, the Rudd study notes. In an emailed statement, a McDonald’s spokesperson said, “McDonald’s is committed to marketing responsibly while ensuring our advertising reflects the diverse customers and communities we serve. While we disagree with some of the assertions in this [Rudd] report, we are focused on continuing to help lead the industry on self-regulation around advertising to children, which is a critically important issue.” (Burger King did not respond to requests for comment.)
Advocates for changing the food advertising landscape think the current political moment around tech can force more-consequential regulations on companies than the ones they choose themselves. “There’s a kind of awakening that's happened recently, among public interest groups and others, to rein in Big Tech,” says Chester.
Nick Freudenberg, a public health professor at City University of New York and director of the school’s Urban Food Policy Institute, agrees. “The FTC needs to weigh in…The people in charge since Biden, and lots of people in the House and Senate, do have an appetite for taking on food marketing, and the political and market power of social media companies.” (The FTC declined a request for comment.)
If and when regulations do finally develop, Freudenberg doesn’t want to see platforms wield the same power as food companies did in 2011. “It’s appropriate to consult the tech industry, but they ought not to have a seat at the policy table,” he says.
While waiting on the legislative and regulatory processes, change—or the lack thereof—may come down to what consumers want. “The marketing literature shows that people don't necessarily dislike marketing. It's entertaining, they feel that somebody is reaching out to them,” says Shiriki Kumanyika, founding chair of the Council on Black Health and a research professor in community health and prevention at Drexel University. “Black people in general, from a civil rights perspective, have wanted more recognition in the marketplace… I would like to see consumers have more of a voice in how things are marketed and what is marketed to them.”
Yu, after learning how effective targeted marketing is, sees consumer voice as just a first step. Companies can simply “pivot with that change” in what consumers demand, she says. In a patchwork system for resisting these ads, she and Lama agree regulation has a role to play.
As Lama put it: “What’s going to stop [targeted marketing]? Maybe laws – question mark?”
This series is supported by Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. VICE News retains complete editorial autonomy.