Unhealthy food marketed to youth through athlete endorsements

Professional athletes are often paid large amounts of money to endorse commercial products. But the majority of the food and beverage brands endorsed by professional athletes are for unhealthy products like sports beverages, soft drinks, and fast food, according to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. The study appears in the November issue of Pediatrics.  

Analyzing data collected in 2010 from Nielson and AdScope, an advertisement database, the study reveals that adolescents aged 12 to 17 viewed the most television ads for food endorsed by athletes. Previous research by public health advocates has criticized the use of athlete endorsements in food marketing campaigns for often promoting unhealthy food and sending mixed messages to youth about health, but this is the first study to examine the extent and reach of such marketing.

Researchers selected 100 professional athletes to study based on Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 report, which ranked athletes according to their endorsement value and prominence in their sport. Information about each athlete’s endorsements was gathered from the Power 100 list and AdScope. Researchers then sorted the endorsements into categories: food/beverages, automotive, consumer goods, service providers, entertainment, finance, communications/office, sporting goods/apparel, retail, airline, and other. The nutritional quality of the foods featured in athlete-endorsement advertising was assessed, along with the marketing data.

Of the 512 brands associated with these athletes, food and beverage brands were the second largest category of endorsements behind sporting goods. “We found that LeBron James (NBA), Peyton Manning (NFL), and Serena Williams (tennis) had more food and beverage endorsements than any of the other athletes examined.  Most of the athletes who endorsed food and beverages were from the NBA, followed by the NFL, and MLB,” said Marie Bragg, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at Yale.

Sports beverages were the largest individual category of athlete endorsements, followed by soft drinks, and fast food. Most — 93% — of the 46 beverages being endorsed by athletes received all of their calories from added sugars.

Food and beverage advertisements associated with professional athletes had far-reaching exposure, with ads appearing nationally on television, the Internet, the radio, in newspapers, and magazines.

“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,” said Bragg.

Bragg and co-authors assert that professional athletes should be aware of the health value of the products they are endorsing, and should use their status and celebrity to promote healthy messages to youth.

Other authors include Swati Yanamadala, Christina Roberto, and Jennifer L. Harris of the Rudd Center at Yale, and Kelly Brownell of Duke University.

The study was supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation.

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