(Reuters/Neil Hall)

There are few demographic groups in the U.S. that don’t struggle with obesity. But the disease takes a particularly dramatic toll on African-American communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all black adults are obese, as are 20 percent of kids.

That’s what makes a new study on junk-food ads all the more striking: It suggests that fast-food chains, soda-makers and snack-vendors increasingly are targeting black teens and children.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and published Thursday in the journal Pediatric Obesity, analyzed Nielsen data from 2008 to 2012 to compare food-ad viewing rates. It found that all children saw more TV and beverage ads in 2012 than in 2008, even though the amount of time kids spend watching TV has basically stayed the same. The analysis also found that black children are exposed to more junk-food advertising than white kids are -- as much as 50 percent more, in fact, among teens.

That finding was consistent with prior research. But while researchers have long assumed the disparity sprung from the fact that black kids watch more television, this study suggests that the gap also has a great deal to do with the types of television black kids watch -- and marketers’ ability to target them on those specific networks.

Compared to their white peers, black children spend far more time watching “youth-targeted” and “black-targeted” networks, such as Fuse, Nick-at-Nite, BET and VH1. These are also the networks, researchers found, that air the most food advertisements.

Frances Fleming-Milici, a marketing researcher at the Rudd Center and the lead author on the new report, does not believe that is a coincidence.

“Determining the intentions of [food] companies is challenging,” she said. “But we use the same data that companies use to place their ads. Ads are placed to reach a certain demographic.”

The placement of food ads -- and the demographics they’re intended to reach -- has become a subject of controversy in recent years. Multiple randomized trials, analyzed last October in the journal Obesity Reviews, have found a clear link between a child’s preference for unhealthy foods and exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

Most food marketing is unhealthy: The Obesity Action Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates that nine of every 10 youth-targeted food ads are for sugary drinks, cereals, sweets, snacks and fast foods. Cara Shipley, who coordinates an obesity-intervention program for kids of color in Baltimore, said her students can always identify, in a split-second, the mascots and characters pictured in commercials.

An analysis of Nickelodeon programming  in the summer of 2015 found that 65 percent of the food ads shown in a 28-hour period were for “foods of poor nutritional quality,” including Baby Bottle Pops, Fruit Gushers and Frosted Flakes.

Technically, all three of those foods meet the nutrition criteria established by the Childrenˈs Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory program adopted by 17 major food companies in 2006 in response to criticisms of child-targeted marketing. It restricts the calories, saturated fats, sodium and total sugars that appear in food marketed to children under 12. The program’s nutrition standards are more lenient than many advocates would like, and they only apply, for the most part, to ads that appear on children's networks. They do not consider children over 12, and they certainly don't consider factors like children's viewing patterns, race or obesity risk.


The food companies that spend the most on black-targeted TV, regardless of age group, as of 2015. (Rudd Center)

As a result, critics argue, manufacturers are still blitzing the most vulnerable kids with images of sugary snacks and fast food. This study found that, in 2008, black kids ages 12- to 17-years-old saw 18.6 food ads every day. In 2012, they saw 24.2 ads -- a 30 percent increase.

“There’s so much discussion right now about kids and healthy eating,” Fleming-Milici said. “But it’s hard to believe we can see an increase in healthy eating without decreasing the incessant exposure to [unhealthy] ads.”

How to decrease that exposure remains a matter of debate, however -- as does the premise that kids over 12 should be protected from food marketing, at all. The World Health Organization recommends that governments take regulatory action to protect kids from junk-food ads, and has even suggested the definition of "kids" increase to age 16. In the U.S., the matter is left entirely to industry, which has repeatedly insisted both that their current standards have improved the nutritional quality of products advertised on kids’ TV, and that any expansion would unfairly impact their adult advertising.

That leaves the matter to parents, Fleming-Milici said, as well as educators in programs like Shipley’s. To counter the allure of the sports stars and musicians that appear in junk-food ads, the program has begun printing posters with its own healthy-eating, local celebrities.

“[The kids] are really influenced by what’s ‘cool,’” Shipley said. “We’re trying to reverse that -- but the social pressure is huge.”

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