Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing

by on January 2, 2014

in Monthly

Advertising foods and beverages is a big business. Advertisers spend more than $2.5 Billion per year to promote restaurants and another $2 Billion to promote food products. Using athletes to market products comes at a price some food companies are happy to pay.

Kobe Bryant, an influential NBA player, earned close to $12 million per year from his endorsement contract with McDonalds (Pediatrics November 2013) Peyton Manning, perhaps one of the top NFL quarterbacks in recent times, reportedly earned $10 million per year from contracts with food and beverage companies.

While young people view more than 40,000 ads per year on television alone, they are also increasingly exposed to advertisements on the Internet, in magazines and in schools.

In a recently published study, done by prestigious institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Stanford, researchers combined their skills. They tried to dig deeper into the type of foods professional athletes endorsed and wanted to see if it actually influences behavior. (Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; Stanford School of Public Policy; Harvard School of Public Health)

The paper was published in Pediatrics (Nov 2013, Vol 132, Number 5) and the study design was impressive. Researchers looked at the top 100 professional athletes selected on the basis of Bloomberg’s Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 rankings. They looked at all product endorsements but particularly for foods and beverages.

They used a Nutrient Profile Index to assess foods for its calories, saturated fats, sugars, sodium and fiber content. Nielsen data were used to determine how many TV advertisements for athlete-endorsed food and beverage products were viewed by individuals in different age groups in 2010

Of the 512 brands endorsed, food and beverage ads represented 23.8% which was second to sporting goods and apparel which represented 28.3% of all brands.

Close to 80% of the food products athletes endorsed were ads for energy-dense and nutrient poor foods. Of the 46 advertised beverages 93% had 100 % of calories from added sugar.

The athlete who had the most endorsements for energy-dense and nutrient poor foods was the NFLs Peyton Manning followed by LeBron James and Serena Williams.

Manning endorsed products such as Gatorade, Wheaties, and Pepsi. Lebron James endorsed McDonald’s products, Powerade and Vitamin water. Serena Williams endorsed Kraft Oreo products. Sidney Crosby —who appeared lower on the list of incomes generated by endorsements— appeared in ads for Tim Hortons, Gatorade and Dempsters bread.

The authors of the study claim that although the use of professional athletes in marketing foods and beverages to youth has been criticized by the public health communities, no previous study looked at the extend and reach of such marketing practices as their impressive, but imperfect study (they lamented the fact that their study of endorsements and its impact was only limited to 2010)

Two surprises surfaced: adolescents saw more athlete-endorsed food commercials than adults and parents perceived athlete-endorsed food products as healthier than nonendorsed products.

The authors also brought up the criticism of the sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics by McDonalds which sent mixed messages about diet and health.

They also reminded us that during the early 1900s Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig appeared in cigarette advertisements. It was only in 1964 that the tobacco industry adopted the voluntary Cigarette Advertising Code announcing they would not depict well-known athletes in advertisements.

The current use of influential professional athletes to endorse advertisements for unhealthy foods and beverages will be difficult to change. I doubt we will one day look back and gasp at how it was possible for influential celebrities to promote unhealthy foods and beverages. The fundamental question will always be where society must draw the line between too much regulation by government and allowing the free-enterprise system to function on its own. In the end busy and over-committed parents will be up against a ubiquitous media and so far the results speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, let us remind ourselves that advertising healthy foods has been shown to increase wholesome eating in children as young as 3 to 6 years of age. For more information on how advertising influences the health of children and youth see:


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