Junk Food Marketing, Latino Kids, and the Scary Health Halo Effect


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Research has long shown that Latino kids see a lot of unhealthy food and drink ads on TV.

But now a new study shows that food companies heavily target Latino kids on the Internet, too, according to a new study from the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

computer internet marketing young kid girl latinaWhat’s worse, the Rudd Center also has confirmed a troubling “health halo effect.”

That is, when food manufactures promote good nutrition and physical activity in ads for unhealthy products, children can be misled and confuse their understanding of good health, according to researchers, via a separate study.

The new findings have big implications for Latino kids, who suffer higher rates of obesity and worse health outcomes than their peers.

Targeted Online Marketing To Latino Kids

Previous research has shown that food and drink companies target marketing for unhealthy products, such as candy, sugary drinks, snack foods, and fast-food restaurants to Latino kids in their neighborhoods and on television.

But unhealthy food ads continue—now on the Internet.

Rudd Center’s new study found that Latino kids ages 6-17 were more likely than their non-Latino peers to visit food and beverage websites, even despite fewer visits to the Internet overall.

Websites that were popular among Latino youth than with non-Latino youth include:

  • ChuckeCheese.com
  • HappyMeal.com
  • The Lunchables website
  • FrostedFlakes.com
  • Two Spanish language websites (ComidaKraft.com and McDonald’s MeEncnata.com)

Even baby food marketing does not align with expert opinion and is thought to undermine breastfeeding

Latino parents see many obstacles to encourage healthy eating and see greater impact from unhealthy food ads on their kids. More than 8 in 10 parents want food companies to reduce advertising of unhealthy food to kids.

But what happens when an ad “looks” healthy?

When Unhealthy Products Mix with Healthy Activities

The halo effect in marketing is when someone’s impression of a brand or product is influenced by positive associations with something unrelated.

For example, food advertisers claim a “health halo effect”—that including healthy lifestyle messages, like physical activity and engaging in sports, will increase children’s understanding of good health more broadly.

Rudd Center researchers were skeptical.

They thought that combining physical activity messages with unhealthy foods and drinks would confuse children about what is healthy.

Researchers wanted to examine three questions:

  1. Do nutrition and/or physical activity messages in child-directed TV commercials for nutrient-poor food/drinks also produce health halo effects fo unfamiliar foods with children?
  2. Do these messages increase other positive attitudes about advertised products?
  3. Does exposure to advertising with healthy lifestyle messages and/or advertising that promote healthful food/drinks positively affect children’s health-related attitudes or behaviors more broadly.

Halo Effect

The study of 138 kids ages 7-11 and their parents confirmed the halo effect.

Children think food, snacks and beverages are significantly healthier if marketing messages include healthy behaviors, like children engaging in sports, according to the research findings.

Additionally, children were more likely to think that their parents would buy the unhealthy products with health halo messages than similar products without the halo messages.

Researchers did not confirm food manufacturers’ claims.

Marketing messages that included healthy behaviors did not improve children’s attitudes about nutrition or physical activity, thus likely did not increase children’s understanding of good health, researchers found.

The implication is that food and beverage companies benefit by purposefully boosting the perceived healthfulness of their unhealthy products.

Latino children and families, meanwhile, are left confused about what is actually healthy.

When food manufactures promote good nutrition and physical activity in advertising for unhealthy products, they mislead children, which likely diminishes children’s understanding of good health, according to the researchers.

The researchers ultimately urged such practices to be discouraged.

“Companies should not promote physical activity or good nutrition in child-directed advertising for nutrient-poor food/drinks as this practice likely increases children’s positive attitudes about unhealthy brands, and does not benefit children’s diet or health,” according to the study.

Spread the word if you want to promote healthier food for Latino kids!

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