Just when you thought that US fast food companies couldn't get any more evil—many of them underpay their workers and steal wages from those already underpaid workers—it now appears that they prey on minority children, too.
In a study published last month by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, authors examined the advertising strategies of 6,716 fast food restaurants located in 434 communities across the country. They found that locations in middle-income, rural and black communities disproportionately targeted kids, using child-directed marketing tactics such as including indoor play areas in restaurants and advertising children's toys and popular cartoon characters or sports figures on the outside of the restaurants. Fast food locations in majority black neighborhoods were found to be nearly twice as likely to use such marketing compared to locations in white neighborhoods.
The study's authors looked at both fast food chains and independently owned restaurants between 2010 and 2012. They found that, contrary to popular belief, the burger joints and fried chicken spots were not disproportionately located in minority neighborhoods, but that the ones that serve those communities appear to be targeting children in the layout and design of their locations. One fifth of the restaurants used marketing strategies that target children, and those located in majority black areas had nine times greater odds of having a kids' meal on display on the inside of the store.
"It's just another example of the horrendous health disparities faced by black people," said Elizabeth Alexander, professor of African American studies at Yale University. "And to exploit that using children—knowing full well how such eating habits can contribute to a future of disease and 'dis-ease'—is criminal," she told me.
In the US, fast food is the second-largest source of total energy in the diets of children and teenagers, providing 13 percent of total calories consumed by 2- to 18-year-olds, the study's authors wrote. Each day, almost a third of young children and nearly 40 percent of teenagers eat in a fast food restaurant.
Fast food companies are clearly aware of the cash cow that young junk food fans represent. The restaurants spend almost a quarter of their marketing budgets on advertising that targets kids between the ages of 2 and 17, and in 2009 spent more than $700 million on such advertising. Nearly $350 million of that went towards lures such as kids' meal toys, according to researcher Punam Ohri-Vachaspati.
A childhood spent eating such wildly unhealthy foods is likely having an impact on the health of black adults, who have the country's highest rate of obesity and ever-climbing rates of diabetes.
"It can be hard to break habits that are made in childhood," Alexander said. "This is another reason why Michelle Obama's food initiatives are so forward-looking."
While the First Lady's "Let's Move!" campaign isn't targeted specifically at minority groups, Alexander said, the attention it brings to diet is especially important for parents living in areas where fast food marketing is aggressive.
"We aren't born knowing what to eat and what not to eat," she said. "We teach our children how to do it."
In 2006, fast food giants including Burger King, McDonald's, and PepsiCo joined together to create the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), whose goal is to "shift the mix of advertising primarily directed to children to encourage healthier dietary choices." Participating restaurants can choose not to display child-directed advertising, or to limit their use of cartoon characters and movie tie-ins in their ads. But because the group is self-regulating, its critics have argued that stronger guidelines are needed to govern fast food ads.
Elaine D. Kolish, vice president and director of the CFBAI, explained that the group does not deal with advertising at the point of sales—i.e., in the actual restaurants—and rather encourages its members to shift the advertisements they place in publications aimed at children, such as Sport's Illustrated Kids, and on television networks such as Nickelodeon. She emphasized that McDonald's and Burger King have made significant improvements on their menus in the past few years—offering sliced apples in every Happy Meal, in the case of the former, and oatmeal served with apples and skim milk, in the case of the latter.
"I'm delighted in the progress they're making," she told me.
When it comes to the kid-directed marketing found at fast food locations, Kolish said it's really up to parents whether to buy into that or not.
"If they didn't like it, I think they would speak up and speak out," she said. "The parents are really the ones who are buying the meals. We're talking about kids under 12 here—they're not driving themselves out to eat."