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What Will Get Athletes to Stop Endorsing Unhealthy Foods and Beverages?

Raz Godelnik
| Friday October 11th, 2013 | 0 Comments

serena williamsAthletes and commercial endorsements go hand in hand and probably have since the dawn of advertising. It’s a win-win, right? Athletes enhance their income while companies enhance their sales and brand, using athletes’ fame and achievements to promote their products.

But what happens when athletes promote products that are unhealthy, like snacks, soda drinks or fast food? Is it still a win-win, or does the fact that more people will consume unhealthy products make the ad deals a net-negative? And last but not least, is it fair to ask athletes to adhere to higher standards and not to advertise unhealthy foods and beverages?

These questions came up following a study published this month in the journal Pediatrics. This study quantified 100 top professional athletes’ endorsement of food and beverages in 2010, “evaluated the nutritional quality of endorsed products, and determined the number of television commercial exposures of athlete-endorsement commercials for children, adolescents, and adults.”

The results of study showed that 79 percent of the 62 food products endorsed by athletes in advertisements that year were energy-dense and nutrient-poor, and 93.4 percent of the 46 beverages the athletes advertised had 100 of calories from added sugar. The researchers also name names – the worst athletes when it comes to endorsing unhealthy food and beverage products were Peyton Manning, Serena Williams and LeBron James.

So what’s the problem exactly with Manning promoting Papa John’s (after all he owns 21 locations), James advertising Sprite and McDonald’s or the Williams sisters (with the Manning brothers) endorsing Oreo? The authors of the study explain: “…the promotion of energy-dense, nutrient poor products by some of the world’s most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health. It is possible that food companies associate athlete simply because they are celebrities, but research shows that athlete endorsements are associated with higher healthfulness ratings on the products they endorse.”

So when Kobe Bryant endorses Coke it sends a very different message than a similar endorsement from, let’s say, Jennifer Lopez or Paula Abdul. The reason is that Bryant only makes the product look cool, his endorsement means it becomes associated with a healthy lifestyle. In other words, Bryant’s endorsement is like a “kosher” certificate to potential customers who might be concerned that Coke isn’t exactly a good fit for their healthy lifestyle.

One of the main issues with such endorsements, the researchers note, is their potential impact on young people. First, youth are  exposed to more of these ads – according to the study, adolescents aged 12-17 saw about 35 food commercials with athlete endorsers during 2010 and children under 12 saw 21 such commercials. Second, research has found strong associations between increases in exposure to advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity. So while the current study doesn’t show a cause and effect relationship between athletes’ unhealthy endorsements and childhood obesity, it suggests that, given the stature of athletes among kids and adolescents, this relationship is certainly possible.

And it’s not just about the impact on kids. Earlier this week the New York Times reported that the snack-food giant Mondelez International, whose products include Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies, Ritz and Wheat Thins crackers and Cadbury candies announced an expansive sponsorship deal with American soccer teams and players. Mondelez, according to the article, pitches its products primarily to mothers, including soccer moms. “I’m less concerned about TV viewership,” said Stephen Chriss, senior director of consumer engagement and marketing services for North America at Mondelez International, “because for us it’s about tapping into that cultural relevance of soccer and putting our brands on that stage.”

So who should take responsibility on this issue? The researchers hope the study findings will “inform the development of global food policies to address the use of athletes in food marketing.” I doubt if that will happen given the power of the companies and the fact that even on a local level taking such steps is almost impossible.

My guess is that companies are not likely to take action either. It doesn’t makes sense for them to censor themselves and avoid choosing the most effective promoters for their products – those who associate their products with healthy lifestyle, sports and physical activity.

Don’t expect athletes to say no to companies that pay them millions of dollars to promote products that are still socially acceptable. They won’t do it unless they feel they have to, which brings me to the two possible paths I see that can make a change happen: one, there will be a cultural shift that will change the perception of the public on unhealthy food, making these products as attractive to athletes as cigarettes are right now. Or, two, an NGO will decide to target these athletes, creating public pressure that will get the athletes to the point where they realize that advertising unhealthy foods and drinks hurts their own brand and has a net-negative impact on their pockets.

Until one of these scenarios takes place, parents are the ones that should exercise responsibility, explaining to their kids about the difference between ads and reality. If that doesn’t work they can offer their kids the ultimate challenge – searching online for the last time where the athlete they like so much was seen eating at McDonald’s, drinking soda drinks or munching an Oreo cookie when they weren’t paid to do it. I am not sure if it will help but it will certainly give these ads a more realistic context.

[Image credit: y. caradec, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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