Black children viewed ads totaling about 2,000 calories per day; black teens viewed more than 3,000 per day, including more than 1,000 from sugar and saturated fat. Also, studies found that during restaurant visits, black youth ordered more food than their white counterparts. To make matters worse, fast food restaurants in black neighborhoods did not promote healthy meals as often as restaurants in predominantly white, more affluent areas.
The top 10 fast food restaurants ranked by TV ads viewed by blacks were McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, Domino’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Sonic and Dairy Queen, according to the Rudd Center.
Targeted campaigns extended beyond TV and radio. Billboards for fast food companies were significantly more prevalent in low-income black neighborhoods than in predominantly white areas. And advertising went gone viral. KFC had two websites targeting blacks while focusing on selling new products, including soft drinks: KFCHitmaker.com, celebrating black heritage and music, and Pride360HBCU.KFC.com, which focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Another marketing ploy involves appealing to black consumers through their heroes. Fast food companies have appropriated cultural icons like civil rights heroes, sports stars, and even ancient African kings in ads.
More often, however, targeted ads use black everyman and everywoman characters. McDonald’s used black main characters in 23% of its ads in 2009. Also, McDonald’s was the only fast food restaurant to feature black children as the main characters in child-targeted ads. Dairy Queen featured a black main character in 19% of its ads, and Subway in 10%.
The federal government hasn’t been idle through all this. Eighty percent of all fast food French fries are made from the Columbia River Basin Russet Burbank potato, grown in heavily watered desert farmland, according to Common Cause magazine. The federal government subsidizes an extensive irrigation system that brings water to the basin via the Grand Coulee Dam. Irrigation projects such as this cost taxpayers $3 billion a year.
Also, in a move showing how government can foster uncomfortably close ties to fast food companies, in 2006 President George W. Bush unveiled a national health care plan at Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, and joked, “You can either get your three-quarter pound triple cheeseburger or your salad,” alluding perhaps to the popular appeal of a burger over greens.
But Michelle Obama and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity have taken fast food restaurants to task, saying they must play an important role in supporting, rather than undermining, parents’ efforts to encourage healthy eating habits.
As black people pack on pounds, and as new health studies deliver more and more bad news about black obesity, public officials plan to meet in workshops to decide what to do. (A conference of black public officials will convene in Chicago this spring, and offer a workshop called “Young, Fat and Black? Unhealthy Schools, Unhealthy Kids”).
Will a solution be found in the courts? Perhaps not. In 2003, a federal judge threw out a landmark case, Pelman v. McDonald’s, alleging that food from McDonald’s caused people to become obese. Congress then passed the so-called “Hamburger Bill” prohibiting similar suits.
The solution to black obesity and obesity in general may well lie in fostering an environment that promotes healthier fast food, consumer awareness and greater access to food choices. As the court said in the Pelman case, “Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald’s.”