US: Pushing products to the poor and impressionable

Faced with saturated markets, there is a disturbing tendency for marketers to turn their attention to vulnerable minorities and children, says Polly Devaney

As traditional markets become saturated and mainstream avenues for growth decline, American consumer products companies naturally look for new markets to develop. Some may say the word “exploit” is more appropriate, as much of the most aggressive “market development” of recent years in North America has been directed at women, children, Hispanics and African-Americans. These groups have proved to be the most susceptible to lifestyle-based images reflecting attractiveness, wealth or just a certain attitude.

Despite national concerns over the commercialisation of schools having been voiced for several years now, a vote on March 15 by the Maryland Senate indicates just how ingrained this type of marketing has become. Senators voted 26-18 against outlawing advertising in schools, as well as the plethora of exclusive marketing deals arranged by soft drinks manufacturers with education authorities, which in some cases give schools up to $100,000 for the exclusive drinks distribution rights to a school district. Brands often supply the schools with branded sports gear and other “goodies” into the bargain.

Many parents are furious that their children are pushed towards soft drinks, as schools’ contracts often specify a minimum sales value that can equate to 50 cans per student per year. Consequently many schools are ignoring federal regulations that demand vending machines be switched off during mealtimes. School districts claim they “need the money”, as the system is chronically underfunded. No doubt advertising would prove hard to remove at this point unless a viable state-funded alternative was offered. None is forthcoming, so Maryland school officials joined forces with soft drinks makers and the vending industry to pressure senators to vote no this month.

There are certainly growing concerns in the US about commercial influences on the nation’s schoolchildren. Some states even allow advertising on the iconic and antiquated yellow school buses. The Maryland Senate Bill would have required schools to notify parents if they entered into contracts to expose their pupils to advertising – such as broadcasting the Channel One newscast for schools, a show which includes ads.

As with most issues in the US, outcomes vary from state to state. In some, parents are winning the battle: last year in Philadelphia a $43m (&£29m) deal to promote Coca-Cola in schools was blocked by angry parents, and last month in New York parents filed a lawsuit against schools, which resulted in the schools agreeing to serve only nutritious food during lunch. Just this week Coca-Cola has announced a new policy to actively discourage local bottlers from forming agreements with schools.

Anheuser-Busch has been under fire for several years now in the US for its beer ads featuring characters that are claimed to be attractive to children. A survey of 800 children released last March showed that children aged six to 17 years rated Bud’s talking lizards and frogs as their favourite ads, above those for McDonald’s, Barbie and Coca-Cola. Whilst this alone does not mean Bud is responsible for attracting underage drinkers, the placement of its ads has angered many. Bud’s media plan has included slots on MTV since 1996, and half of MTV viewers are under the legal drinking age of 21. Actions such as this inspired the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and other Drug Problems to buy shares in Anheuser Busch so it could fight from the inside at shareholder meetings. It took out half page ads in the Washington Post and the St Louis Dispatch (the brewer’s head office is in St Louis), asking Budweiser to “stop using Joe Camel-like characters to sell beer”. RJ Reynolds’ Joe Camel character has been under attack for a considerable time now in the US, having also been proven to be appealing to children. The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating the marketing practices of the eight major alcohol advertisers since 1997 but so far it seems to have taken little action and is reliant on manufacturers sticking to their own self-imposed and rather ambiguous code of conduct.

The changing demographics of the Hispanic community in North America makes it a very attractive target group to marketers. Not only is it a very youthful community, with an average age of 25.5 years, but by 2010 it will be the largest minority group in the US, with an estimated purchasing power of $188bn (&£130bn) a year. Unlike other channels, Spanish language television in the US still allows ads for “hard” liquor. Many alcohol marketing campaigns have sought to closely associate themselves with Latino culture, sponsoring festivals and parades, as well as awarding scholarships and community grants. In a similar way to that between schools and soft drinks, the relationship becomes mutually dependent, and Latino communities are unwilling to speak out against their benefactors, even when the incidences of illness and crime as a result of cigarettes and alcohol are significantly on the increase.

African-Americans have disproportionately high rates of poverty and poor education, and also suffer from higher rates of death, disease and injury from alcohol and tobacco. Billboards advertising cigarettes and alcohol are overwhelmingly concentrated in the low income neighbourhoods of these groups in the US. Their images offer the promise of something better – if only you drink the right beer or smoke the right cigarette.

Women are not traditionally thought of as a “vulnerable minority”, but they are more likely than men to be influenced by persuasive advertising for products that claim to enhance attractiveness and bring success. In years gone by, women were not big drinkers or smokers, often because their domestic responsibilities gave them no time for such idle pleasures. However, with the growing economic independence and social freedom of women, a vast number of alcohol and cigarette brands are promoting those values. Most American manufacturers have been quick to develop “Light” beers, wine-coolers and even “slimline” brands that tap into women’s insecurities about their weight. Cigarette brands have developed “ultra-mild” and “slim” varieties and added names such as Eve, Misty and Vogue to their stables.

While all marketing is designed to elicit some kind of emotion in the target market, much

of the marketing we are now seeing has more sinister undertones. It relies on insecurities, catching people when they are young, creating addictions, pushing stereotypes and promoting harmful behaviour. This becomes even more worrying when the authorities, whose job used to be to protect their communities and pupils, become addicted to corporate handouts. Will any have the strength to bite the hand that feeds?

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance writer in New York

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