For the past three decades, U.S. childhood obesity rates have increased substantially, especially among teenagers. A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests one reason may be due to the influence of celebrities paid to promote unhealthy food and beverages.
The study’s lead author Dr. Marie Bragg, a professor at the NYU College of Global Public Health, hopes the study will help people and companies understand the connection of teen obesity with marketing.
“Because of our nation’s childhood and teenage obesity public health crises, it is important to raise awareness about how companies are using celebrities popular with these audiences to market their unhealthy products. Research has already shown that food advertising leads to overeating, and the food industry spends $1.8 billion per year marketing to youth alone.”
Sugar-laden drinks, fast food, and other low-nutrition products are most often endorsed by celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, yet no one identified in the study was promoting fruit, vegetable, or whole grain products. Bragg believes this is because many fruit and vegetable companies simply don’t have the money to pay for celebrities.
The research team examined numerous television, magazine, and radio ads released between 2000 and 2014. Also analyzed were YouTube views and other media sources like food-sponsored concerts.
To measure the popularity of a celebrity, the researchers ranked the number of YouTube video views they had, coupled with a star’s appearance on the Teen Choice Awards. Musicians on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 listings in 2013 and 2014 were also included.
After reviewing over 160 celebrity-endorsed advertisements, 65 were linked to 57 different food and drink brands. Using an assessment tool named the Nutrient Profile Model to measure a product’s nutritional value, the researchers found 81 percent of the celebrity recommendations were potentially unhealthy.
Nearly 70 percent of the drinks were high in sugar, including many popular sodas. Only three water-related ads featured a famous pop star.
“The popularity of music celebrities among adolescents makes them uniquely poised to serve as positive role models,” said the study’s co-author Alysa N. Miller, MPH, a research coordinator in the department of population health. “Celebrities should be aware that their endorsements could exacerbate society’s struggle with obesity — and they should endorse healthy products instead.”
In the study, many popular musicians were found to be endorsing food and drinks considered unhealthy. Justin Timberlake was pushing both McDonald’s and Pepsi Regular. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 wrote music for Coca-Cola and Snapple, while trap-music artist Baauer was sponsoring several products including Red Bull, Dr. Pepper, and Hot Pockets.
Country music stars were also found in many ads. Carrie Underwood was featured in Hershey’s chocolate ads, and Blake Shelton was promoting Pepsi and Pizza Hut.
Previous research also found a connection between celebrity endorsement and the increased consumption of unhealthy products. Yale University conducted a similar study in 2013 that analyzed sports-related products promoted by athletes. The data revealed over 90 percent of the calories in the sponsored-drink products came from added sugar.
Program director and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Lona Sandon isn’t surprised by the research team’s findings.
“Teens want to make their own decisions and be independent, and start looking to others such as pop stars as role models. They want to try things that they see their role models doing, things that maybe their parents do not approve of, like drinking a soda or energy drink.”
The celebrity-endorsement study estimated that children are subjected to about 4,700 ads every year, while teenagers watch 5,900. Many food and drink companies have voluntarily decided not to target children under 12, but they still spend billions of dollars and rely on pop star power to grab the attention of teens.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]