Dr. Andrew Maroko, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, and colleagues examined targeted marketing, often towards vulnerable groups, of unhealthful food and beverages in New York City subway stations. The findings were published in the Journal of Urban Health.
Unhealthful food-and-beverage advertising often targets vulnerable groups. Neither the extent of such advertising in subway stations nor how ad placement may relate to subway ridership or community demographics has been studied. There are no studies on the implications for diets and diet-related health conditions in surrounding communities.
The research team rode the seven New York City subway lines in the Bronx, one of the five boroughs that comprises New York City. Investigators systematically assessed all print ads (n = 1586) in all stations (n = 68) in 2012. Data about subway ridership came from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Demographic data on surrounding residential areas came from the U.S. Census Bureau. Data on dietary intake and diet-related conditions came from a city health department survey.
Researchers observed that there were no ads promoting “more-healthful” food or beverage items (i.e., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, water or milk), but there were many ads for “less-healthful” items (e.g., candies, chips, sugary cereals, frozen pizzas, “energy” drinks, coffee confections, hard alcohol, and beer). Ad placement did not relate to the number of riders entering at stations. Instead, exposure to food-or-beverage ads generally, and to “less-healthful” ads particularly (specifically ads in Spanish, directed at youth, and/or featuring minorities), was directly correlated with poverty, lower high-school graduation rates, higher percentages of Hispanics, and/or higher percentages of children in surrounding residential areas. Correlations were robust to sensitivity analyses. Additional analyses suggested correlations between ad exposures and sugary-drink consumption, fruit-and-vegetable intake, and diabetes, hypertension, and high-cholesterol rates.
The research team concluded that subway-station ads for “less-healthful” items were located disproportionately in areas home to vulnerable populations facing diet and diet-related-health challenges. They also concluded that uneven ad placement did not relate to total rider counts suggesting ads were not directed at the largest possible audiences but rather targeted to specific groups.