“Want a Big Mac?”: How Food Marketing Fuels Systemic Racism

Rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes disproportionately impact Black adults compared to their white counterparts in the United States, and ads from food companies like McDonald’s and Taco Bell directly target Black households—a connection that can’t be overlooked. Forms of systemic racism, like housing inequality and food apartheid, directly contribute to the high rates of health-related issues among Black people, however, mass media, specifically food marketing, plays a significant role as well. Food marketing perpetuates food apartheid among predominantly, low-income Black neighborhoods because it informs and normalizes systemic anti-Black racism through media and modern culture .

Mass media–TV shows, commercials, and movies—informs the public about Black communities, and although the media educates the public, it perpetuates racial tropes and stereotypes. Through over and underrepresentation of Black people, mass media impacts not only how the public perceives Black people, but how they perceive themselves. Overrepresentation manifests into the ways in which Black people are represented and the spaces in which they are represented. For example, The Opportunity Agenda conducted studies that demonstrate that Black males are often overrepresented with depictions of violence, poverty, and crime in the media. The media’s constant association of Blackness with violence and poverty plagues some Black communities while neglecting the structural racism embedded in those stereotypes.

Similarly, junk and fast food companies cement the systematic issue of food apartheid because they overtly target Black hosueholds and oversaturate their advertising with Black and Hispanic people. Compared to their white counterparts, Black youth were twice as likely to view junk food ads on television in 2017. Brands like McDonald’s, Hershey, PepsiCo, and Kellogs allocate 86% of ad spending on Black-targeted advertising, and nearly all of the people on Sprite’s Instagram profile are Black hip-hop artists and athletes. Sprite incorporates Black culture in its advertising to clearly attract Black customers, but the company doesn’t face the repercussions for causing health risks that impact Black communities.

 Furthermore, by almost exclusively advertising towards African-Americans, fast food companies stimulate a seemingly inherent desire and expectation to consume the company’s product. Youth are very susceptible to advertising and mass media, therefore, when junk food advertising targets Black youth, they are more likely to consume junk food and develop poor eating habits in the future. Ann-Derrick Gaillot, a writer for The Outline, raises the possibility that they prefer Sprite because the company invests money into appealing to African-Americans, which illuminates how junk food companies subtly normalize their products with Black culture. It is evident that junk and fast food companies manifest poor health among Black people because nearly half (46.8%) of African-American adults are obese.

Moreover, healthy food companies indirectly sustain food apartheid because they lack a diverse target market, and Black people and families are not represented in their advertisements. Healthy food advertisements, including products like nuts, juice, and water, represent 1% of ad spending on Black television, and within that narrow margin, healthy food companies fail to include Black people in those advertisements, hence encouraging the notion that it isn’t normal for Black people to consume healthy, nutritious foods. Kirsten Allen, a writer for the Huffington Post, writes that some Black communities consider healthy foods to be “white people food.” Healthy food companies rarely interact with Black households, therefore healthy food companies indirectly engender an expected behavior that Black people don’t eat healthy foods. 

Healthy and junk food companies’ marketing tactics and locations bolster food apartheid in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods. Fast food restaurants populate in Black neighborhoods far more than healthy food stores and restaurants. Ashante M. Reese, a professor of anthropology and sociology, stated, “The fact that predominantly black neighborhoods, on average, have fewer stores and poorer quality [food] compared to their white counterparts means something.” Reese’s point is a result of food companies practicing anti-Blackness in their advertising. Companies like McDonald’s and Sprite aim to generate profit at the expense of Black people, whereas healthy food companies, like Vita and Smart Water, aim to generate profit by excluding Black communities from their target market and advertisements. As these companies practice anti-Blackness in their marketing, they manifest food apartheid. relative to healthy foods in stores or establishments that sell healthy foods. 

The cycle is clear: fast and junk food companies excessively target Black households, and  create a normalized culture for Black people to eat unhealthy food, which leads to an overbearing amount of these establishments in low-income neighborhoods, ultimately instilling poor eating habits into low-income, Black households. So, what are the solutions to dissolve the relationship between food apartheid and food marketing?

First, diversity is essential for food marketing; food companies should aim to balance who they target, who they represent, and how they represent people in their advertisements. Restaurants and all food companies should represent Black people in their advertising to normalize and promote healthy eating, and in those depictions, Black people shouldn’t be confined to a racial trope. Also, junk and fast food companies shouldn’t oversaturate Black household televisions with their advertisements because they further the expectation that Black people only eat junk and fast food. 

Second, cities should encourage and provide access for healthy eating in predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods. Ideally, food companies need to shift how they utilize race in advertising, but food marketing isn’t a systemic issue. Thus, cities should intervene in low-income neighborhoods to alleviate the structurally racist issue of food apartheid. The New York City Department of Health incorporated 27 farmer’s markets throughout the Bronx, and the markets accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. Allowing EBT cards as a form of payment enables access to healthy, nutritious foods for low-income and impoverished families. 

Ultimately, combating food marketing and structural issues like access will help dismantle food apartheid in low-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Food marketing isn’t a systemic issue, but it fuels structural racism, and food companies need to recognize their responsibility in food apartheid in order to eradicate it.

Works Cited

Aiken, Kristen. “’White People Food’ Is Creating An Unattainable Picture Of Health.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 17 Sept. 2018, www.huffpost.com/entry/white-people-food_n_5b75c270e4b0df9b093dadbb.

“Black Americans.” Black Americans & Heart Disease – Facts & Statistics, www.your-heart-health.com/content/close-the-gap/en-US/heart-disease-facts/black-americans.html.

Byrne, Christine. “It’s Great That We Talk About ‘Food Deserts’ – But It Might Be Time To Stop.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 4 July 2019, www.huffpost.com/entry/food-desert-problem-access-healthy-options_n_5d1b910ee4b082e55370dee5.

Cruz, Lenika. “’Dinnertimin’ and ‘No Tipping’: How Advertisers Targeted Black Consumers in the 1970s.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 June 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/casual-racism-and-greater-diversity-in-70s-advertising/394958/.

Gaillot, Ann-Derrick. “There’s Sprite at the Cookout.” The Outline, The Outline, 16 Apr. 2018, theoutline.com/post/4174/sprite-black-advertising-history?zd=1&zi=mkcxjoxl.

Holleran, Max. “How Fast Food Chains Supersized Inequality.” The New Republic, 2 Aug. 2017, newrepublic.com/article/144168/fast-food-chains-supersized-inequality.

“Improving Media Coverage and Public Perceptions of African-American Men and Boys.” The Opportunity Agenda, 2011, www.opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/improving-media-coverage-and-public-perceptions-african-american-men.

Lawson, Kimberly. “Why Seeing Yourself Represented on Screen Is So Important.” Vice, 20 Feb. 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmwq3x/why-diversity-on-screen-is-important-black-panther.

Nittle, Nadra. “People of Color Have the Highest Obesity Rates in the US. Food Marketing Is Part of the Problem.” Vox, Vox, 28 Sept. 2018, www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/28/17910518/black-hispanic-obesity-rates-food-marketing-mcdonalds-commercials-sprite-fast-food-junk-food.

“Nutrition: Farmers Markets.” Nutrition: Farmers Markets – NYC Health, www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/health/health-topics/cdp-farmersmarkets.page.

Wetsman, Nicole. “Junk Food Ads Disproportionally Target Black and Hispanic Kids over White Kids.” Popular Science, Popular Science, 6 June 2019, www.popsci.com/junk-food-ads-marketing-kids/.

4 thoughts on ““Want a Big Mac?”: How Food Marketing Fuels Systemic Racism”

  1. This blog addresses a prevalent issue that is impacting many African Americans. The incorporation of multiple sources works well throughout the piece and help to further support the argument being made. The analysis allows for deeper thought on how big companies intentionally target poorer communities of color for their financial benefit. The reasons for the prevalence of many diseases in African American communities is due to the access and exposure to unhealthy foods. The writer acknowledges that there are complexities to this situation and that there is an element of structural racism impacting food accessibility.

  2. This blog post does a great job of unpacking the problem of unhealthy food companies targeting low income black families. The author effectively highlighted media’s direct role in this issue and I particularly like how they used multiple examples instead of just sticking with examples from the same food company. What really strengthens this post is the fact that the author provided potential solutions to the problem. The potential solutions of diversifying the advertisement of food and increasing access to healthy eateries do a great job addressing the “so what”. Overall, this post was very informative and well-organized.

  3. “That’s white people food” is a statement I have definitely heard before. That being said, I appreciate how you addressed this notion and explained this sentiment is problematic. Large companies have a lot of influence on the public and based on your blog it sounds like companies need to confront their social responsibility for their depiction or lack thereof black people. It is interesting how companies like Sprite are in a way exploiting black dollars yet healthy food companies avoid using black people in their advertisements altogether. If healthy foods targeted black communities as well as white communities wouldn’t that mean they have access to a larger market, or do they really believe that black people are bad for business?

  4. This blog post reminds me of Tricia Rose’s “How Structural Racism Works” concept. There are a lot of moving parts that make up geo-tagging in order to market products. It’s undeniable that the companies the author listed use Blackness to sell their products, but only so much of that is attributable to commercials and media. There’s also a history of food inequality and the overlapping nature of food, distance to supermarkets and monetary resources. The availability of fresh food in “the hood” is few and far between and also expensive. It’s expensive because the few businesses have a monopoly on the limited product. The product is limited because of how structural racism associates fast food with Blackness and considers some food better than none at all, despite the low quality. Mass media then disseminates these associations throughout news outlets. The result ends up being a chicken and egg situation of which came first. The author’s solutions and citations were helpful to grapple with this concept and made for an engaging read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *