Basketball superstar Lebron James (right) in a McDonald’s commercial. A recent study out of Yale finds that the majority of foods and beverages that athletes endorse are unhealthy and, worse yet, often target adolescents.
Athlete endorsements are commonplace on our television sets and other media outlets. According to a recent study appearing in Pediatrics, nearly a quarter (24%) of superstar athlete endorsements are for food and beverage products (Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing, 2013. Marie Bragg, et al.). The study, led by a Yale health policy expert, found that an alarming proportion of the food and beverage products that athletes endorse are unhealthy.
The study used Businessweek’s 2010 athlete power rankings, a list of the 100 most influential athletes ranked by endorsement value and prominence in their respective sports. The food and beverage brands that these one hundred successful athletes endorsed were then evaluated for nutritional quality. Foods were designated unhealthy if they were found to be “energy-dense and nutrient-poor.” A startling 79% of the endorsed brands were designated “energy-dense and nutrient-poor." Beverages were assessed by calorie origination. The study reported that 93.4% of the athlete-advertised beverages had all of their calories stemming from added sugar.
The worst offenders were football player Peyton Manning (NFL), tennis player Serena Williams, and Lebron James (NBA). Peyton Manning Serena Williams and Lebron James had the most endorsements for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Their endorsement portfolio includes McDonalds (Lebron), Bubblicious Bubble Gum (Lebron), Papa John’s Pizza (Manning), Sprite (Lebron), Oreos (Williams) and Gatorade (Manning, Williams). Studies show that athlete’s endorsements of food products lead parents to perceive the endorsed food as healthier than food not endorsed by athletes (Parent’s Responses to nutrient claims and sports celebrity endorsements on energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods: an experimental study, 2011. Dixon, et al.) Unfortunately, when deciding what food to buy, it is more convenient to judge nutritional quality by recalling paid endorsements rather than reading nutritional labels.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of athlete endorsements of unhealthy food and beverages is who they target. Adolescents age 12 to 17 saw the most food commercials with athlete endorsements (an average of 32.5 commercials over the year 2010). The mixed message of physical prowess and unhealthy diet that athlete endorsements send youth can be hard for this audience to decipher. With the growing youth obesity epidemic, finding ways of curtailing youth exposure to athlete endorsements of unhealthy foods appears most pressing.
However, as the study authors points out, it is not just direct athlete endorsements that tie unhealthy food with athletics. For example, the 2012 London Olympics were sponsored by McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. However, the International Olympic Committee received public criticism for drawing MdDonald’s and Coca-Cola as sponsors. More public pressure on athletes and athletic institutions may help stem the athletic community from endorsing unhealthy food and beverages.
Whether right or wrong, athletes undoubtedly endorse a proportionally high amount of unhealthy foods and beverages. We must determine how to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of these endorsements on our society’s health. In recognizing the impact that professional athletes have on youth health, the NFL, NBA and MLS have independently launched youth fitness and health programs. It is important that we all, youth and adults alike, recognize that athlete endorsements are founded upon financial interests, which athletes are free to make. Athlete endorsements do not reflect the lifestyles or diets of the athletes themselves. Finally, most professional athletes are driven by a desire to leave a legacy; professional athletes should recognize that, for better or worse, the companies and brands an athlete chooses to associate with can shape his or her legacy.