The Concerning Trend of Fast Food Companies Targeting Minorites With Their Advertisements

Adrienne Lambert
13 min readMay 10, 2021

A Hard Look Into the Ethics of Racial Ad Targeting of Fast Food.

McDonald’s $1, $2, $3 Dollar Menu Commercial


Fast food advertisements in the 1960s and 1970s are inconsistent with the ads you see today on your phone and on TV. Due to the increasing usage of highways, fast food chains and restaurants began to flourish in the 1960s (Diamond). During the 1970s the demand for fast food increased as women who were previously home cooks began to enter the workforce for the first time. Fast food advertisements during this time centered on white families and appealed to parents looking for an easy and enjoyable dinner. Marketing teams pitched fast food as a fun and cost-effective way to feed middle-class white families. Later in the 1970s advertisement shifted to appealing to children in white families instead of being marketed towards parents (Schlosser).

For years, fast food companies created the perception that families who ate at their establishments were refined, white, hardworking Americans who were able to treat their families to the establishment’s food. However, after conducting research on advertisements of fast-food companies, there is evidence of a major shift in advertisement to targeting minority communities, specifically, minority youth in the 1990s. In fact, over time there has been a major increase in fast food corporations using a marketing tactic called Racial Ad Targeting. Racial Ad Targeting refers to an advertisement that takes the demographics from the customers, in this case, race, and uses the information to create advertisements or tailor the advertisements that are displayed on your phone or internet (Lynne d Johnson).

Growing up I was able to see two completely different worlds that exist within the same country. I was privileged enough to have hard-working parents who were first-generation college students and worked to allow me to live in the suburbs of Apex, NC. I was able to have access to nutritious food and several comforts. On the other hand, I also saw the world that my family on my mom’s side lived in. She grew up in a low-income neighborhood in New Bern, North Carolina, where many of my family members remain. There is a stark difference in the access to nutritious food and food places in the suburbs of North Carolina versus in low-income neighborhoods. Many residents of low-income or minority neighborhoods live off of food stamps and fast food is a main part of their diets.

The perception that people have about minorities that live in low-income areas is that minorities, in general, are unhealthy because of their diets and minority parents are inadequate because they only feed their children fast food. But the reality of the situation is that there is unequal access, economic and location-wise, to certain foods in certain places. While many minority communities have abundant amounts of fast-food restaurants there isn’t a Whole Foods in sight. Minorities are hardworking and resilient and yet I sit and watch their health suffer due to their lack of access to nutritious food and the pattern of eating at fast food places. When I look at fast food advertisements, I get frustrated, since all I see are minorities specifically Blacks and Hispanics in these commercials, and I get even more frustrated when I see the ads for fast food on the television programming watched by minority-majority audiences. Why are most of the commercials now fast food? Why are most of the people in the commercials Black and Hispanic? What do minorities and minority youth think when they see these commercials? Are we eating at these places because that is where capitalism has decided where we should eat? And how is Racial Ad Targeting in fast food affecting minority communities and communities of color?

Racial Ad Targeting has pushed its way through as an effective tactic that fast food companies are using to sell their products. As a result, minorities are increasingly featured in fast food advertisements and this creates a distorted perception of self within minority communities and an inaccurate perception of minorities to the public. The consequence of targeted advertising is detrimental to minorities who have decreased access to fresh and healthy food and easy access to fast food, which contributes to the disproportionate numbers of chronic diseases affecting Black and Hispanics (Harris and Kumanyika). This calls into question the ethics of increased targeted fast-food advertisements for specific races.

Historical Look on How Advertisement Targeting Changed From 1960-Present Day:

Vintage McDonalds Ad from the 1960s (picture from Chris Montone’s Collection)

In the 1950s and 1960s the American Highway System was created, causing Americans to drive more, and for the layout of cities, towns, and suburbs to be created to accommodate car travel. It was with the highway that fast-food restaurants, which had been around since 1921, began to rapidly increase in popularity (Diamond, 2019). Fast food advertisement has changed substantially from the 1960s to the present day. Throughout the years, different advertising tactics were employed targeting certain audiences to sell their food. To analyze how fast-food restaurant advertisement has changed over time, I studied the advertisements of the well-known fast-food chain McDonald's from the 1960s to 2020 or present day. What I found was a major shift in fast-food advertisement targeting White families, White mothers, and White children to the advertisement being mostly targeting minorities and specifically minority youth.

When examining McDonald’s advertisements in the 1960s there was a big focus on White families. In the commercials, they had different white family members: mothers, children, fathers, and teens advocating for Mcdonald's saying that it was “their kind of place”. They emphasized that Mcdonald's could be a treat for parties and dinners and that they served family communities from coast to coast at over 900 McDonald’s (undoicalvario). It was clear that the target audience for Mcdonald's was White middle-class families and that Mcdonald's was originally advertised as a treat instead of being an everyday meal.

Moving into the 1970s women began to enter the American workforce in record numbers. By 1975 one third of all American mothers worked outside of their household, this created a demand for services that previously were done by housewives, such as cooking and cleaning. Fast food created a perfect avenue for women who didn’t have enough time to cook diner and wanted a fast and easy meal for their families (Schlosser). McDonald’s advertisement adjusted during the 70s to appeal to the White mother. They put emphasis on Mcdonald's being a “family meal without dishes or fuss” and that Mcdonald's provided “home quality cooking without the home-work” in most of their commercials from the 70s (haikarate4).

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s was when McDonald’s advertising shifted to focusing on children and teens. Toys were introduced into Mcdonald's happy meals and there was an expansion to targeting White children and youth outside of the suburbs. Many of the advertisements in the 1970s looked like kids' shows, as they took place in the fantastical Ronald McDonald land. The commercials in the 70s targeted children to convince kids to ask their parents to take them to McDonald's, using the slogan “nobody can do it like McDonald's can”. Observing McDonald’s commercials in the 80s, their advertisement still focused on children, mostly still majority White, but now they also started to target White teens and young adults. McDonald's featured popular dances in their commercials to appeal to teens and young adults. They tried to make McDonald's a place that would be a cool hang-out spot after classes. The 1980s was also when Mcdonald's started placing focus on how fast food would save money (YouTube, yIxAMxABU).

Lebron James in 2013 Mcdonald's Commercial

The major shift in McDonald’s advertising started in the 1990s. McDonald's began using their advertisements to target other races, Blacks and Hispanics, and also appeal to their mostly white customer base by featuring minority sports celebrities. Their advertisements featured Roberto Alomar a famous Hispanic baseball player and Michael Jordan a renowned basketball player, to name a few. They also continued to emphasize the cost-effectiveness of their food by introducing deals such as the .69 cent hamburger Mondays, which was used to appeal to teen and adult finances (McDonald’s Television Compilation). So now McDonald's not only appealed to white and minority youth but also their parents in terms of the economic saving they would get by buying fast food instead of cooking. It was during this time that America began to see a major difference in how money in the US is used to buy food. Before most of the money allocated for food was used to make homecooked meals and by the 1990s half of the money allocated to food per household was spent mainly on fast food restaurants (Schlosser).

Minority youth, especially Black youth, started to be at the forefront of McDonald’s advertising in the early 2000s and this has continued to the present day. Their commercials featured, Black culture, rap battles, Black history month-themed toys with their happy meals, and a surplus of Black actors, musicians, and athletes. Some of the celebrities featured were Kobe Bryant, Destiny’s Child, Lebron James, Usain Bolt, Dwight Howard, Chrissy Teigen, and JB Smoove. Many of these celebrities are very prominent in the Black community but also popular outside of the Black community (McDonaldsAllAmerican). McDonald's was able to profit off appealing to and targeting Black youth using prominent Black celebrities and athletes but also using “Black cool” to sell their products to other races.

When compared to any other brand Mcdonald's spends the most money on advertising, heavily markets towards American youth, and is one of the top food brands ranked in racial advertisement that targets minority youth. The major increase in Racial Ad Targeting isn’t only contained to McDonald's, many other fast-food companies such as Subway, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Burger King, Arby’s, and Taco Bell have increased their spending on Black and Hispanic targeted advertisement by more than 50% from 2013 to 2017. When you look at the statistics of the amount of food ads children and teens watch per day on average, white children and teens saw 10 food-based advertisements per day whereas their minority counterparts saw upwards of 17.1 food advertisements per day (Harris and Kumanyika). The data supports the issue that fast food companies are targeting minority youth with their advertisements and this practice like most capitalist tactics has its consequences.

Consequences of Targeted Food Advertisement on Minorites:

Fast food advertisement targeting minority youth is harmful to minority health. Hispanic and Black children and teens are more targeted by fast-food advertisements than White children and teens. Fast food products are high in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories all of which are directly related to chronic health issues, that disproportionately plague minority communities, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity (Harris and Kumanyika). The risk of diabetes is 77% higher in African Americans and 66% higher in Hispanics than in White Americans.

The overabundance of minorities pictured in fast food advertisements distorts how minority youth see themselves. If fast food ads mostly feature minorities, minority children will see the ads and believe that is the type of food that they are supposed to eat. When it comes to Racial Ad Targeting, companies discovered that minority adults and youth respond more than White adults and youth to seeing people like themselves in advertisements (Grier and Kumanyika). Even though depicting mostly minorities in fast food ads could be seen as exposure it furthers harmful stereotypes about minorities, that minority youth absorb along with the public. In the commercials, Black men and teens were represented as athletes or musicians and Black women as caregivers. To add, many of the fast-food restaurants use the Black people only eat fried chicken stereotype heavily in their advertisement. This along with harmful stereotypes about Hispanic and Black people “acting hood” or being in gangs is also frequently highlighted in fast food commercials. The effects of these types of stereotypes in fast food advertisements are detrimental to minority communities. Not only will the advertisement create the dangerous habit of minority children feeling like they need to frequent fast food places to fit in with their own communities, but also repetitive images of stereotyped minorities in advertisement can result in children and teens believing that they are confined by said stereotypes (Morin).

Economic and food disparities in minority communities are a root cause of racially targeted fast-food advertisements being so successful. When compared to White household incomes, African American household incomes are much lower. Having a lower income increases the sensitivity to the cost of food and the food that is the cheapest in the U.S. is high in fat, sodium, and sugar. Along with the cheapest food being the unhealthiest, there is also unequal access to healthy nutritious foods (Grier and Kumanyika). Minority communities are often subject to food deserts, “areas in which residents are hard-pressed to find affordable, healthy food”. Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets and more small grocery stores and yet an abundant number of fast-food restaurants in these areas. With fast food being the most accessible and the cheapest option, minorities usually are left with no other option, but to eat it frequently. This causes many health problems at young ages. Kelly Bower a nurse in Baltimore noticed that many of her Black female patients were at risk for heart disease and had diabetes at very young ages. She states “the women lived in unsafe neighborhoods, often with no parks, gyms, or supermarkets, where the convenience stores sold junk food. Add to that their reliance on public transportation, responsibility to care for and support their children, and their struggle to stay substance-free…even if they wanted to make healthy choices, their circumstances made it very difficult for them to do so.” (Brooks).

Counter Argument:

Picture by Aaron Atkins

In terms of opposition, some may think that Racially Targeted Advertisement doesn’t only provide a poor perception of minorities. In fact, they believe that targeted advertisement features famous minority musicians and athletes, wealthy minorities, which in turn positively impacts the perception of minorities in the eyes of minority youth and other groups. Also, they believe, advertisements that aren’t projecting stereotypes, highlight Black and Hispanic culture. However, this is incorrect. Fast food companies are using minority coolness, aspects of a minority culture that are seen by the public as fun and enticing, to sell their food. These companies are profiting off Black and Hispanic people and creating a higher risk for the minority coolness and culture to be appropriated or inaccurately displayed. For example, Travis Scott, a famous black rapper, partnered with McDonald's and created the Travis Scott Meal which was composed of normal menu items: a Quarter Pounder with cheese, french fries, and a large Sprite. Teenagers of all races including his mostly white fan base raced to McDonald's to order his “Travis Scott Meal”, McDonald's sold so many meals that they ran out of quarter-pounders and made their quarter for the year (Marsh). And yet it did nothing to help minority communities it was only a means of profit for McDonald's. To add, if these commercials only feature minorities being respected and valued as athletes and musician’s minority youth will only see those two career paths as a way to succeed. Minority children and teens should feel valued and accepted not just as athletes but as teachers, scientists, doctors, and directors (Bennett).


At the moment, fast food advertisement uses stereotypes and certain images of Hispanic and Black people to sell their products and target minority audiences. However, even with the consequences of Racial Ad Targeting in fast food companies, there are solutions that can be implemented to help. What I would suggest is that there should be funds allocated to improve the infrastructure in minority neighborhoods so that they can better support businesses, specifically grocery stores. Also adding an incentive for supermarkets and farmers markets to locate in minority neighborhoods would help remove the issue of food deserts being mostly located in low-income and minority communities. To add, industries should be forced to put out just as much Racially Targeted Advertisement for healthy food as they do unhealthy food. There should be positive images of minorities eating and purchasing food that is good for them and the minorities in these commercials should be diverse in the careers they are portraying. The cost of nutritious food should also be lessened in low-income areas. This would decrease the disadvantage of minorities having lower household incomes which prevent them from being able to purchase healthy foods due to price. In terms of who should be responsible for implementing these solutions, I believe that the federal government and local government should provide the resources to fund these solutions due to the fact that it was the government and systemic racism that caused these issues in the first place. As for who should implement these solutions, I believe that employing minorities who specialize in these areas would be the best choice. When looking at what the consumer can do, I think that if the resources, time, and situation allow minorities can begin taking steps to remove themselves from the idea that fast food is the best option and instead explore other avenues of food.


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Grier, Sonya A., and Shiriki K. Kumanyika. “The Context for Choice: Health Implications of Targeted Food and Beverage Marketing to African Americans.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 98, no. 9, 2008, pp. 1616–1629., doi:10.2105/ajph.2007.115626.

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