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Radical Rutgers Professor Maps Toxic Ads, Then Buys Billboards to Publish Her Results

Naa Oyo A. Kwate counts fast-food outlets, alcohol ads, and immune system markers to analyze the impact of the urban environment on our health.

Naa Oyo A. Kwate's innovative research analyzes the urban environment in terms of its impact on health. As Associate Professor in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, she carries out studies that focus on what she calls "toxic exposures" to things like fast-food outlets, advertising messages, and even subtler cues such as bulletproof glass, barbed wire, or shopfront security grilles.

For Edible Geography, I talked to Kwate about several of her recent studies, including one in which she mapped alcohol advertising in Central Harlem against residents' drinking patterns. Not only did she discover that an astonishing 25 percent of the outdoor advertising space in the neighborhood was dedicated to selling alcohol, but also that exposure to these ads increased black women’s chances of being a problem drinker by up to 13 percent.

What's particularly interesting about her current project, though, is that she is not only documenting the urban environment's effect on health, but then turning around and using the same tools—outdoor advertising—to publish her results and stage a positive intervention. She's still in the data-collection phase of this ambitious 5-year study, funded by a NIH Innovator Award, but eventually she plans to buy billboards, use them to disseminate her findings and their implications in terms of racism and inequality, and then measure her participants’ health pre- and post-exposure, in order to evaluate the impact of her own messaging.

The idea, Kwate explains, is to "play off the finding that, in some instances, African Americans—particularly those of lower income—who deny experiences of racism actually have worse health than those who report it." Rather than a message of uplift, her ads will, she hopes, sensitize residents to the pervasive inequalities embedded in their streets and storefronts. Although this counter-marketing campaign is still a few years away, Kwate offers an example of the kind of message she might want to communicate in an bus shelter ad: "Normally, this space has a liquor ad in it."

You can read more about Kwate's shocking findings thus far and her bike-mounted fleet of urban researchers over at Edible Geography. I can't wait (5 long years!) to see how her own blunt un-advertising campaign works out.

Images: Alcohol advertising in Central Harlem; photos by Naa Oyo A. Kwate, photoshop mock-up by me.

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