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Does Marketing Contribute to Obesity in African-Americans?

Study Indicates It Does, but Economic, Cultural Factors Also to Blame

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- There is a body of statistical data suggesting that the black community has been left behind on the road to healthier-food marketing.
Sonya Grier, associate professor of marketing at American University's Kogod School of Business, was the lead researcher on the project.
Sonya Grier, associate professor of marketing at American University's Kogod School of Business, was the lead researcher on the project.

That's according to an article in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health, which examined marketing and advertising studies conducted between 1992 and 2006 and looked at foods and beverages marketed to blacks vs. whites.

Sonya Grier, lead researcher on the project and associate professor of marketing at American University's Kogod School of Business, said her group uncovered 20 studies done during the 14-year period. Each study, she said, found disparities in marketing to the two groups. This chasm, she concludes, creates an environment that contributes to obesity.

New study to come
Ms. Grier and Shiriki Kumanyika are primary investigators on a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study obesity prevention in black children. Less than one year in, the pair is now gearing up for their own full-fledged study.

The article may be the first comprehensive look at food marketing to blacks, considering the types of products offered to a market, promotions, advertising and other communications, distribution and availability of specific products and price. The research does not single out specific marketers.

Ms. Grier also noted that in some black neighborhoods, it's easier to find a fast-food restaurant than it is a grocery store.

"It's probably true in terms of having access to fresh fruit and vegetables," said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the NAACP, adding that a number of major cities, including Detroit and Baltimore, seem to have fewer and fewer grocery stores. At the same time, fast food continues to grow. "You often have fast food carry-outs; Chinese, Mexican or other well-known fast-food restaurants seem to have more of a presence than a traditional grocery store or even a corner market in some cases," he said.

Unhealthy environment
And at those markets, Ms. Grier said, some studies indicate that point-of-sale displays are more likely to support higher-calorie products such as candy and soda. "It doesn't make for an environment that's supportive of healthy eating," she said.

While there are a number of factors, particularly economic and cultural, contributing to the situation, Ms, Grier emphasized that marketers have gone to great lengths to change their positioning for other demographics.

"Companies are constantly changing marketing strategies over social concerns about healthy eating," she said. "We don't see with the same frequency or fanfare in terms of targeted marketing to African-Americans, and all we're suggesting is there needs to be a more balanced approach to create a healthier food environment for African-Americans."

As part of the article, Ms. Grier says that food marketers need to take a hard look at how they're communicating with the black population. She also appeals to black media to pursue sponsors that hawk healthier products, and communities to push for better access to supermarkets and farmers' markets.
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