In New York City, a professor of Human Ecology from Rutgers University is taking a giant step from documenting the urban advertising landscape toward changing it. In the process, she hopes to improve the health of neighborhoods impacted by blight such as outdoor alcohol advertising.
Dr. Naa Oyo Kwate’s research focuses on mapping urban environments and their impact on health. For example, she found that an astonishing twenty-five percent of outdoor advertising in Central Harlem was dedicated to promoting alcohol. Exposure to the alcohol ads increased black women’s chances of being a problem drinker by up to thirteen percent. As she told Edible Geography, she found that the themes in those advertisements “reproduced and drew upon stereotypes of black people — that black men are sexual studs, and that black women are sexually licentious and available.” She also noted the disturbing subtext that there are “in a poor neighborhood, a lot of messages saying that you can use alcohol as a means to achieve social mobility.”
Unlike many researchers, though, Dr. Kwate is doing more than just publishing a study of her results. She recently was awarded the National Institutes of Health’s Innovator Award, which she will use to buy up outdoor advertising spaces that would usually be used for toxic messages and use them instead to illustrate stark facts about racism and inequality. She will measure health outcomes pre- and post-exposure, and then analyze the impact of the new messages.
Despite her current entrepreneurial approach, Dr. Kwate is adamant that better government regulation would be a more effective and practical intervention. While she hopes for significant results, she recognizes that “at the end of the day, it’s still just an exhortation to people to change their individual behavior…there’s more to this than a simple individual choice.”