Marketing may influence how often parents feed their children fast food, according to a study by Sonya A. Grier, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at American University’s Kogod School of Business in Washington, DC.

Her study, “Fast-Food Marketing and Children’s Fast-Food Consumption: Exploring Parents’ Influences in an Ethnically Diverse Sample,” appears in the current issue of the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

“Obesity rates are significantly higher among many ethnic groups other than non-Hispanic whites, particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and Pacific Islanders,” Dr. Grier says. “Yet much research in marketing does not include ethnically diverse samples.”

Dr. Grier and her coauthors designed a questionnaire through which parents reported on fast-food access, attitudes, social norms, exposure to promotions and children’s fast-food consumption. It was administered at community health centers in medically underserved areas on the East Coast and Puerto Rico.

When parents reported greater exposure to fast-food promotion, researchers found a link to beliefs that eating fast food is a regular practice in the community. Greater exposure was also linked to increased fast-food intake among children. And the more parents perceived fast-food consumption to be a socially normal behavior, the more frequently their children ate it—a finding that applied to all ethnic groups.

The study also identified how parents of different ethnic groups varied in their perceptions of fast-food marketing and access. Hispanics and African-Americans reported greater exposure to fast-food marketing, as well as greater access to fast-food restaurants (convenient locations). Hispanics reported significantly more positive attitudes toward fast-food than did whites. Asian parents expressed the least normative views of fast-food consumption.

The results indicate a need for further research, says Dr. Grier, who was recently appointed to the Scientific Board of Advisors for the CDC’s National Center on Health Marketing. Such research could help improve efforts to prevent obesity.

“It is important to examine group-level influences on behavior in combination with the traditional focus on individual influences on behavior,” she says.

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