Kinesiology and Health Education Associate Professor Keryn Pasch knows how influential marketing to young people can be from over 10 years of research. “Behavior isn’t just about individual choices,” she explains. “It’s about a much bigger context. We need to think about the environment, about people within their context.” In 2003 she began looking at the environment in which young people and school-age children live, and how alcohol and food and drink companies were marketing to them in and around those spaces.
Pasch began documenting food and beverage advertisements, like those found on billboards, in convenience stores, restaurants, and fast food chains, within a half mile perimeter of 43 middle and high schools in the central Texas area. Many of these high schools had open campuses, meaning kids can leave campus for lunch. “A half mile is a feasible distance a kid would walk either for lunch or to and from school.”
What she found were about 150 ads per campus, thousands altogether, using words or photos of menu items, enticing people to eat or drink. “It isn’t the healthy choice being advertised,” says Pasch. “So the advertising skews kids’ perception of what is normal and healthy to eat. It normalizes unhealthy choices.”
Coupled with the ubiquitous ads around schools was the proximity of fast food restaurants and conveniences stores, providing easy access to unhealthy options. In addition, says Pasch, “Disparity exists. There are lots more food and beverage establishments and advertisements in low socioeconomic communities and in predominately Hispanic and African American communities.” Graduate student Ana Herrera’s research on these disparities is currently under review.
“We have to start asking why we allow companies to create advertising specifically for children,” says Pasch. “No one would say it was OK for alcohol and tobacco, so why is it OK for unhealthy foods and drinks?”
So far, attempts to limit outdoor advertising of unhealthy food and drinks to children have bumped up against the first amendment, which protects advertisers’ right to free speech. What’s needed, says Pasch, is policy change, but that can’t come about without consistent evidence. Pasch’s latest research, with Dr. Natalie Poulos who worked as a graduate student on the project, provides some of that evidence.
“Paid-for placement exists all over stores and around schools, targeting young people,” she says. Pasch believes there are things concerned parents and others can do to help counter that messaging:
- Start a conversation with other parents
- Talk to their kids about food and beverage advertising
- Go to city council meetings and make your voice heard about food and beverage advertising around schools
- Ask questions if your school sells chips, candy, and other unhealthy foods, and if healthier options are available
- Ask questions about brand and product promotion in your school
Want to learn more to help youth live healthier lives? You can view a recent interview with Pasch about her research on the rising popularity of e-cigarettes among young people.
Photo by Christina S. Murrey