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Beyond the Billboards

December 10th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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Today’s adolescents are wired into TV, the internet and cell phones — for advertisers this means more places to sell their goods. The personal nature of some of these devices also means more ways to target specific communities and demographics. Some experts are concerned that this kind of target marketing influences the rising rates of obesity in African American and Latino communities.


Remember this one, “silly rabbit, Trix are for kids… and sometimes for tricky rabbits.” That commercial is from the 60’s, but talking rabbits are still selling sugary cereal, just like a certain red headed clown is still peddling cheeseburgers. It doesn’t take a sleuth to realize who these commercials are targeting — kids.

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And now, with so many more TV channels and websites the advertising options have increased. But let’s start with the basics, the official term is target marketing. “Target marketing is about trying to reach specific groups of consumers.” Sonya Grier is an Associate Professor of Marketing at American University, “and I tend to focus on African Americans as well as Latino consumers. Primarily because of my work in obesity, and those are the consumers with some of the highest rates of obesity.”

Kids Cereal Ads

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that black and hispanic youth consume at least 3 hours more media each day than other adolescents. As for how much of the advertising is targeted, well Sonya Grier explains. “All marketing is target marketing. Target marketing in and of itself is not bad. It’s the core of modern marketing, it’s the way you get people the things that they need, you don’t target pantyhose to men, because men don’t wear pantyhose. But I guess the issue really comes when you target products that tend to contribute to certain diseases or unintended consequences, such as negative health consequences towards groups that are already suffering disproportionately from related diseases.”

Like marketing fast food to low-income African American communities that already have high rates of obesity. Grier says, it does get tricky when people try to blame the marketers for health issues. “African American and Latino are growth consumer segments, but also you have to look at what people eat and drink. So, there is this replication or reinforcement of what people may already buy. Now what people may buy, you can never say marketed caused this. It’s really hard to try to think about a causal chain, it’s that chicken and egg problem, which came first?”

I asked a group of high school students what they think about this. Do commercials make a difference in what you decide to eat or drink?

“Yes, because anything that I can relate to, or someone that I know, then it makes me more prompt to go, ‘oh wait is that ___ eating that burger, than I have to go get that burger.’ ”
“I don’t think commercials really influence my food choices like that. I just see it as 30 seconds I have to sit there and wait until my show come back on.”

There are instances when marketing is purposefully used to persuade people to make healthy choices. Sonya Grier again, “think about the truth campaign. Truth campaign is a social marketing campaign that really helped to reduce teen likelihood of smoking, based on this counter marketing message of the industry has really been duping you so don’t do this, and that’s been effective.” Commercials such as this one, where Steve, a former smoker explains how hard it was to quit smoking, until his vocal chords were cut out.

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People are working to make similar campaigns about junk food. The current obesity problem is often compared to what smoking used to be. As a society we now smoke a lot less, but as Grier points out, there are some major differences between food and tobacco. “Trying to translate that kind of campaign to food is a lot more challenging, because food isn’t one product that’s inherently dangerous for you. Food is a variety of products that you need to live, and there is also an issue of personal choice and selection. People don’t want their products taken away from them, people don’t want other people telling them what they should eat.”

But what about Beyonce getting kids moving earlier this year with her video? That worked didn’t it? 

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“Yeah, yeah, she was with the school kids… Oh yeah, I remember that.”

Photo by Flicker user celesteh / CC BY-NC 2.0

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Photo by Flicker user Chiot's Run / CC BY-NC 2.0

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