Beverage makers target youth, minorities

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Photo by Robert Peck.

Researchers and advocacy groups say that a new Yale study on advertising could shake up the beverage industry.

The study, released by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity on Oct. 31, found an “unprecedented marketing of sugary drinks to youth,” according to the accompanying press release. Jennifer Harris GRD ’08, the Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives and the main author of the study, said the research could force companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to shift marketing strategies in order to avoid bad publicity, as similar studies have done in the past.

The report is the third in a series of research projects the Rudd Center has conducted regarding the effects of food industry marketing on youth, Harris said. The first study, in 2009, detailed harmful effects of sugar in children’s cereals, and the second, in 2010, criticized the fast food industry for allegedly false claims that industry giants were cutting down on their advertisements to children.

“Our ultimate goal is to get the food industry to change their marketing practices,” Harris said.

For this study, researchers from the Rudd Center analyzed marketing campaigns and nutritional information for hundreds of soft drinks and other sugary beverages. The comprehensive report concluded that American youth are exposed to a larger number of ads for sugary beverages, such as energy drinks and soda, than any previous study had shown. The study found that children under the age of 18 are exposed to 18 percent more television ads and 46 percent more radio ads for sugary drinks than adults are, and that teens saw double the amount of soda ads on television in 2010 than they saw in 2008.

Marlene Schwartz GRD ’96, a co-author of the study, said she was particularly surprised by how much the food industry advertised products containing artificial sweeteners — which she said are very unhealthy — in ways that masked their contents.

“I really did not think there would be artificial sweeteners marketed to kids,” Schwartz said, adding that such sweeteners are “completely flying over the radar” for most parents, who might think that a drink advertised as “high in nutrients” is healthier than it actually is.

Though the study was only recently released, Harris said she expects it to have a large impact. In the past, other researchers, advocacy groups and even lawmakers have relied on the Rudd Center’s work to inform their actions, she said.

One such group is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based consumer watchdog group that focuses on nutrition education and awareness. Margo Wootan, the center’s nutrition policy director, said that her group used past Rudd studies, such as the 2009 study on breakfast cereals and the 2010 study on fast food, to put pressure on food industry companies to reduce their ads targeted at kids.

“I think [the Rudd Center’s] studies do make an impact,” Wootan said. “They draw attention to the issues, put pressure on the companies, and inform policy makers.”

Harris said the Rudd center has already publicized the study heavily on its website so parents and consumer groups can gain immediate access for more informed decisions on beverage choices, which she described as a major purpose of the research.

Beyond research, advocacy and informing parents, Harris said previous Rudd Center studies may have had direct effects on food industry giants themselves. As an example, Harris said that after the 2009 breakfast cereal study, cereal giants General Mills and Post agreed to cut down on the sugar levels in their cereals, and have done so ever since. After the 2010 fast food study, both Burger King and McDonald’s agreed to alter their kids’ meal options to make them healthier as well.

“We can’t say that they changed because of [our studies], but I don’t think they like the attention,” Harris said.

In addition to determining the extent of the industry’s focus on youth, the study found that food advertisers directed more ads towards minority youth. African American youth are exposed to “80 to 90 percent more ads for [sugary] drinks in 2010 compared with their white peers,” the 231-page full report said. In addition, the study established that numerous drink companies specifically target African Americans and Latinos, with one drink company, PepsiCo, identifying Latino families as a “growth market” for sugary drinks.

Assistant Yale Professor of Sociology Rene Almeling said unequal health concerns between racial groups are a constant concern.

“In the United States, there are deep and persistent racial inequalities in health,” Almeling said. “One of the potential consequences of directing such advertising to African American and Latino children is that those inequalities will continue into the next generation.”

The soft drink industry earns over $60 billion and produces over 15 billion gallons of soft drink every year.

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