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Racial inequities in food advertising: a conversation with Dr. Aarti Ivanic

Apr 8, 2021

Dr. Aarti Ivanic has been a long-time friend and advisor to us at GroupSolver. We recently sat down with her to discuss her research on the link between race and nutrition. When we think of racial inequity, the basic right of access to healthy foods isn’t always on everyone’s mind. But with conversations bringing to light race, discrimination, and related inequities in our country, it is more pressing than ever for us to continue to educate ourselves on all spectrums of the issue. We hope this interview sparks curiosity and a call-to-action for you like it did for us.

Balbina De La Garza: To begin, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Aarti Ivanic: I am an associate professor of marketing at the University of San Diego School of Business where I have been teaching for 10 years. I teach marketing research and marketing analytics to undergraduate and MBA students. I have worked on different types of research projects, but my focus is on vulnerable populations and their choices in the marketplace. Some of my research focuses on racial differences and the impact on health and nutrition habits.

BD: You have done some interesting research on the role race plays in how products are marketed – what are the most important insights you are finding?

AI: One of most important insights I’ve found is that when companies advertise food to minorities, the ads tend to focus on unhealthy foods. You will see companies promoting unhealthy and junk foods, usually to vulnerable groups like Hispanic and African Americans, and particularly to minority children. Compared to white children, minority children see up to about 3x as many advertisements of junk food. I’ve also found that companies play on social structures and social identities in their advertising. People tend to identify with people who look and sound like them and this affects their marketplace choices. Companies capitalize on this and tend to have spokespeople for products and services ‘match’ the identity of the customer. For example, when targeting minority groups, companies tend to have a minority spokesperson. This is particularly true when advertising unhealthy or junk food. But when advertising healthier options, companies utilize a white spokesperson. When you think of Smart Water, you think of Jennifer Aniston, for instance.

BD: How did you get involved in this research? What specifically struck your passion?

AI: One day I was listening to NPR where they were talking about a group called “Black Girls Run”. In minority neighborhoods, it is often not as safe to run alone. This was created for Black women to run as a group so that it’s safer for them. In listening to this, the inequity between white and black women stuck with me. In the past, I had conducted some research on racial differences and wanted to explore these differences in greater depth and particularly related to nutrition. I have two kids and thinking of what my kids eat is often front and center in my mind; Listening to the NPR show, highlighted racial inequities for me and I realized that Black people and minorities may not have the same access to healthy food. So, my passion came from a combination of professional and personal interests. When I think of stark inequities in basic rights like access to food, it sparks an immediate response that “This is not ok” followed by “what can I do about it”. This serves as a call to action and often ignites some of my research questions and projects.

BD: What would you like to see change in how products and services are marketed?

AI: I would like to see healthier products be marketed more to minorities than they currently are. We need fruits and veggies and water to be advertised to minorities rather than what we see now – primarily unhealthy junk foods such as fast foods, fried snacks and soda.

BD: Can you give some examples?

AI: For example, if a company wants to appeal to the African American market, and they want products marketed to African Americans, you need to see African American celebrities and influencers in those commercials. If Beyoncé is promoting water, and I’m an African American woman, I may identify with her and be more likely to purchase the water rather than if I see a white celebrity like Jennifer Aniston promoting the product. When looking at exercise habits, research shows that African Americans see working out in a gym as primarily a “white person” activity. That’s why Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign was great because she was a role model for minorities and exercise and healthy nutrition was now seen as accessible to everyone including minorities. So, I want to see more African Americans highlighted in commercials for healthful behaviors such as healthy foods and exercise habits.

BD: Do you think the issues regarding advertising unhealthy foods to people of color is more prevalent today than before? Or has it become less common?

AI: I don’t think it’s changed. I don’t think that it’s more or less prevalent. We are more aware of it now because we have data, and we have access to technology and more people are talking about these topics.

BD: Do you think that corporations have a social responsibility in marketing certain foods to people (or not advertising to them)? And if so, what can they do?

AI: I think companies have a really strong platform, a loud voice and access to resources. So, I think they have both the ability and responsibility to help society as a whole. They need to be really cognizant of their marketing: who are they marketing to and what is their content? One of the challenges in a for-profit business is that the goal is to make money and the bottom-line drives business practices and business decisions. I suspect companies are torn between the questions of potentially having a decline in revenue if they take on these responsibilities and doing something good for society as a whole which may, in the short-term, negatively affect their bottom line. I think the mentality of helping society is a whole is something companies need to not only build into their culture, but they also need to make a concerted effort to make a difference by changing their business practices.

BD: How can the government be involved?

AI: I think there needs to be more policies around funding of schools, especially public schools. Giving them money for healthier foods and for hiring more teachers for PE and nutrition classes. It frustrates me that funding for education is one of the first thing’s we cut when trying to balance a budget. Policy makers need to recognize that these issues around food and exercise have long-term effects. Being unhealthy and overweight is not an individual problem because it has overwhelming, long-term, societal implications particularly with regards to healthcare costs. An investment in education for these topics, now, will help mitigate some of these long-term problems.

BD: Given the current issues going on in the world, what can we learn from your research?

AI: I think that the issues in the world have made the findings in my research even more important. We need to be aware of the fact that kids are being exposed to commercials for unhealthy foods. Since schools are closed, they are home and many watch more TV and their eating habits may have worsened. This pandemic has brought to light inequities in basic needs such as access to, availability of and affordability of healthy foods. I think it is time to step back and think more broadly about concrete strategies which can help facilitate healthier food and nutrition options for minorities.

BD: What’s next for the future of your research? Are there any last things you’d like to share with us?

AI: There are a couple of research questions that I am currently examining. One of my projects is on the exercise and nutrition habits of middle school aged kids in underprivileged areas. One area I am delving into is research on racial hierarchies, inequities, and access to food, education, and healthcare.

BD: We look forward to seeing what you’re working on!

Click here if you’d like to read one of Dr. Ivanic’s academic research papers (To Choose (Not) to Eat Healthy: Social Norms, Self‐affirmation, and Food Choice)

Dr. Aarti Ivanic

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