'Almost all foods endorsed by pop stars are unhealthy'

More cola than carrots: study confirms celebrity endorsements aimed at children and teens are almost entirely for unhealthy foods

Teen idols One Direction endorsing Coca Cola.

Teen idols One Direction endorsing Coca Cola.

 

The first quantifiable study of the nutritional value of food and beverages endorsed by pop music celebrities with predominantly teenage fanbases has revealed what should come as no surprise to most: almost all foods endorsed are unhealthy.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the NYU Langone Medical Center, looked at the endorsements of music stars such as Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, Will.I.Am and Beyoncé, among others.

They measured the “healthfulness” of products being marketed by pop musicians over a 14-year time frame using the winners from the annual American Teen Choice Awards. They then looked at the number of YouTube views for various advertisements using pop celebrities in order to determine how influential each music star’s endorsements were.

How sweet it is

The foods being endorsed were measured using a scientific model to determine levels of sugar, calories, fat, protein, etc. “We used the Rayner model developed by Mike Rayner at Oxford University, which has been an effective metric in a number of nutrition studies,” explains Marie Bragg, lead author of the study, and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone.

In almost every case, the food and drinks being endorsed were unhealthy. The worst offenders identified included music producer, Baauer (who has endorsed Red Bull, Pepsi, Dr Pepper etc), Will.I.Am (Coca Cola, Pepsi, Doritos, Dr Pepper), Britney Spears (McDonalds and Pepsi), Justin Timberlake, One Direction, Katy Perry etc.

“The model we used assigns points to ‘good’ nutrients like fibre and protein and ‘bad’ nutrients like fat and calories,” says Prof Bragg. “When we had scores for these products, we could see which celebrities were promoting the most unhealthy foods. For beverages, we are interested in whether the calories come from added sugar or not, and this is because added sugars are one of the largest categories of excess calories among consumers.”

Celebrity athletes? Champions of unhealthy food

Prof Bragg conducted a similar study in 2013 of celebrity athletes’ endorsement patterns. The results were the same. “It’s hard to watch TV or go online without seeing professional athletes or music celebrities endorsing all kinds of products, but there hasn’t been much scientific research into it,” she told The Irish Times. “We did a study on athlete endorsements and found that the majority of beverages promoted by athletes were sugary drinks and most of the food products were high in calories and fat.”

It’s not just athletes though, says Prof Bragg. “If you turn on the World Cup or Super Bowl, many of these half-time shows involve music performers singing alongside logos for sodas or fast-food brands. Just like the athlete study, we wanted to get a sense of how many music celebrities were endorsing foods and beverages, what the nutritional quality of those products are, and whether these celebrities appeal to teens.” The teen element was key to this study, given how much children and teenagers tend to be influenced by music celebrities and the growing obesity levels among young people.

Gangnam nuts

Out of all the celebrities identified in the study, only one was found to have promoted a healthy product. Korean pop sensation Psy, who sang the 2012 global smash hit Gangnam Style, endorsed pistachios in a 2013 Super Bowl TV commercial.

Overall, however, examples of responsible endorsements by music celebrities is about as easy as finding a pistachio in a haystack. “Athletes and music celebrities used to endorse cigarettes too,” says Prof Bragg. “Back then, few people believed public health experts, parents, and policymakers could take on tobacco companies and win. But grassroots efforts by consumers demanding healthier messages is a more powerful tool than we think, especially if there is scientific research to support any grassroots efforts.”

One example from the research output from Langone came in 2015 when NBA basketball star Steph Curry agreed to endorse Brita water filters. “Brita cited our athlete endorsement study in their press release,” says Prof Bragg. “Our hope is that this research into music celebrities will keep nudging companies and celebrities toward healthier messages. They can and should use their celebrity to help send positive messages to the kids that idolise them.”

Given the marketing budgets fast food and fizzy drink companies tend to splurge on advertising, it should come as no surprise that it’s cola and not carrots that are attracting the music and sport celebrities of this world. “Unfortunately, fast food, candy, and soda companies have enormous advertising budgets compared to fruit and vegetable producers,” says Prof Bragg. “So they can afford to pay a music celebrity a few million dollars to appear in a commercial. So, while I agree it’s not surprising to see so many unhealthy ads, it should still be a concern to all parents and policymakers who are trying to reduce childhood obesity.”

Armed with both comprehensive studies explicitly showing the unhealthy endorsement choices of so many celebrities, Prof Bragg believes it will impact how celebrities want their own brand identity to be perceived by the public. “We want to conduct even more research now examining specifically how celebrity endorsements impact the preferences of children and teens,” she says. “Some research has already shown that boys, for example, are likely to pick foods that are endorsed by a celebrity, but it’s unclear how that preference might translate into actual food consumption. Do kids eat more when they see these types of ads? Understanding that will help us guide companies and celebrities who want to be more responsible with their message.”

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