The Chicago Sun-Times reports on a study showing advertisements for fast-food and snacks are more common on black-oriented television (BET) than other stations (WB and Disney Channel). The study appears in a pediatric journal along with another study that says “kids consume an extra 167 calories, often from advertised foods, for every hour of TV they watch.”
These are both just correlations. More junk food ads on BET, and more calories consumed by kids watching TV. “So what?”, one might fairly ask. In case you weren’t willing to do it yourself, an opinion article accompanying the studies helpfully jumps from correlation to causation: “The studies clearly illustrate ‘that the media have disturbing potential to negatively affect many aspects of children's healthy development,’ Amy Jordan of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania wrote in a journal editorial.”
Mm-hmm. And how do the studies show that? Not at all, that’s how. Kids who watch more TV eat more food, but that doesn’t mean the TV ads cause the eating. Another possibility, which seems to me at least equally likely, is that parents who let their kids sit around for long hours in front of the tube are also inclined to let their kids eat junky food.
But why would the advertisers advertise, if they didn’t think it would help their sales? Because the food companies want to make sure the kids who eat junk food eat their junk food. That doesn’t mean the marketing leads to greater consumption overall; it might merely affect the firms’ market shares. And even those might remain unchanged once all the food companies get in on the act. (By the way, I’m not claiming this is certainly the case – I don’t have the evidence for that. I’m just saying it’s plausible enough to me, and these studies don’t provide evidence otherwise.)
As for marketing toward black audiences, that doesn’t bother me, either. If minorities tend to consume more junk food (and I recall seeing statistics to that effect), then marketers will naturally target them more than other groups. That doesn’t mean the marketing causes the consumption; it could easily be the other way around, for the same reasons discussed above. For many other products, social critics would consider a failure to market toward minorities offensive. If marketing toward minorities is regarded as a problem in this case, it must be because the critics consider the minorities somehow more “vulnerable” to the purveyors of potentially unhealthy products. Now that’s an attitude I find offensive.