Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Marketing takes the blame -- or helps initiate change?

Advertising Age recently profiled a study by Sonya Grier, a research scientist who found that the types of food and beverages marketed to African Americans may contribute to rising rates of obesity and other health-related issues. I hate to point this out, but doesn't this seem like the wrong kind of niche marketing? Grier's conclusions sound right on target: higher calorie products are placed at the point-of-sale displays, convenience stores are ubiquitous while grocery stores are not, and promotions emphasize fast food restaurants. Advertising does play a role in what happens. At the same time, let's not overstate the causal relationship between marketing and behavior.

Still, in this case, advertisers really should tread much more carefully, There's a long history of problematic advertising in particular communities. While African Americans span the socioeconomic spectrum, the percentage that live in poor or working class neighborhoods is higher than for many other racial groups. These neighborhoods have long been the terrain of tobacco and alcohol billboard advertisements, trying to capitalize on an already vulnerable population. In the 1970s, when African Americans made up 10% of the population, sometimes up to 20% of a tobacco company's advertising budget was spent on black neighborhoods. Current studies on the effect of alcohol advertising find that alcohol advertisers spent nearly $4.8 million in 2004 to place ads on all 15 of the programs most popular with African-American youth. Studies in Chicago show that all communities --African American, white, or Latino -- with "imbalanced food environments" -- meaning no real supermarkets within an easy travel distance -- greatly increased people's chances of getting diabetes or having a diet-related life threatening health issue. It's not the obesity that matters, per se (although the grant that Grier is working on is specifically funded to target obesity), but the health issues that come from lack of access and choice. Also keep in mind that there's currently no data on whether we're looking at a cause-and-effect scenario, or whether it's just coincidence (which the study will surely look into as well).

Perhaps its seems odd, though, that advertisers would feel it necessary to pour marketing dollars into areas where people already don't have a choice in what they purchase. So why do it? Partly because advertisers may not believe they have a captive audience -- or they want to keep it.

For a more nuanced understanding of the issue, all aspects of social environment need to be considered. In Grier's studies, she found that other health risk factors included: having a social community that valued or enjoyed fast food and living in areas that lacked opportunities for outdoor activities, sports, and school-sponsored play. Consider how difficult shopping must be: Markets in African-American and low-income neighborhoods have fewer healthy foods, and residents may have limited space in which to store fresh and frozen produce , making it more difficult to follow a healthful eating pattern even when desired. According to a recent research summary in Nature, a key variable is the way African Americans perceive their buying power (or lack thereof) in areas with limited local food availability. While there are numerous campaigns to fight diet-related illnesses, eliminate tobacco and alcohol advertising in low income areas, and bring supermarkets and local food to African American communities, Grier does hit on something missing. The advertising and marketing to people in these communities needs to change. Currently, most niche marketing campaigns to blacks focus on the upwardly mobile and wealthier African American professional class (remember my blog comments about gaming and people of color? They're one of the few markets that is starting to recognize that not all black consumers come from the very wealthy or the very poor segments of society). But for the most part, advertisers want to sell black consumers the "Real Desperate Housewives of Atlanta" version of reality: For example, Glam Media has created a new web and blog network devoted to African American women, but its sponsors include Lexus and its focus is on high end beauty and fashion.

While it's nice to see multi- media campaigns being targeted to a new audience, it'd also be a great opportunity for advertisers to tap in to a collective identity and create spots that help shift cultural values towards healthy living for everyone. Honestly, how often do you get to feel like you've done something virtuous and profitable all in the same afternoon?

1 comment:

neal said...

The goals of the marketing organizations are focused on exists to formally take the blame for something and be punished for it.So place the blame on this one person's ignorance rather than Apple's rather.Take a good look in the mirror before determining where the blame really lies, lack of sales, bad marketing, how well they met a real market need.
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