Pop music stars market food and drinks to young audiences, but the vast majority of the products are unhealthy. Scientists say this kind of advertising may contribute to the alarming rise in childhood and teen obesity.
None of the musicians identified in the study endorsed fruits, vegetables, or whole grains—and only one endorsed a natural food deemed healthy—pistachios. The most common food and beverage products were sugary drinks, fast food, and sweets, according to the study in Pediatrics.
For the study, researchers analyzed the healthfulness of food and drinks marketed by music stars, reviewing dozens of advertisements that were disseminated over a 14-year period.
“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,” says lead author Marie Bragg, assistant professor in the population health department at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Research has already shown that food advertising leads to overeating, and the food industry spends $1.8 billion per year marketing to youth alone.”
Ads and labels
To identify popular music stars, investigators went through Billboard Magazine’s “Hot 100” song charts from 2013 and 2014 and also verified their popularity and marketing appeal with teens by reviewing Teen Choice Award winners and quantified the number of YouTube video views associated with the celebrities’ food and nonalcoholic beverage brand endorsements.
The investigators then catalogued every endorsement between 2000 and 2014 using AdScope, an advertisement database that contains all forms of ads, including television, magazine, and radio, and also searched for official commercials or endorsements on YouTube and in media sources. Endorsements were defined to include a celebrity’s participation in a concert sponsored by a product.
The findings show that 65 of 163 identified pop stars were associated with 57 different food and beverage brands. Food and nonalcoholic beverages were the second-largest endorsement category, comprising 18 percent of endorsements and ranking after consumer goods at 26 percent and ahead of retail at 11 percent.
To assess nutritional value of the endorsed food products, the investigators analyzed nutrition information on food labels using the Nutrient Profile Model, which has been used in other food marketing research studies and provides a score that represents nutrient content. Twenty-one out of 26 food products—or 81 percent—were deemed “nutrient poor.”
$2 billion a year
The investigators determined a beverage’s healthfulness by looking at calories from added sugar. Of 69 beverages endorsed, 49 or 71 percent were sugar-sweetened. Full-calorie soft drinks were the most commonly endorsed in the category. In contrast, water-related endorsements appeared only three times.
Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year on youth-targeted ads, with American children seeing approximately 4,700 ads each year and teens viewing 5,900 ads per year, according to Institute of Medicine research. There were about 313 million views of the YouTube video versions for food and beverage endorsements associated with celebrities in this study’s sample, although unique views could not be counted. Celebrity food endorsements promote higher product preference, and exposure to any kind of food advertising is linked to “excessive consumption.”
“These celebrity endorsement deals are often worth millions of dollars each, suggesting companies find them critical for promoting products,” Bragg says.
Food and beverage marketing has been identified in a variety of epidemiologic and psychology studies as a significant environmental contributor to childhood obesity. In 2012, over one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, according to a study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Public Health Service.
Although many food and beverage companies have taken voluntary pledges not to target children under 12 years old with certain marketing, teens are not included.
“Given the heavy targeting of adolescents and the amount of money they spend on foods and beverages, voluntary food marketing reduction pledges should expand to include teens,” says Bragg. “This also would be consistent with American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, which encourages pediatricians to support local and national efforts to reduce food marketing while also counseling patients to limit screen time.”
Celebrities also should use their influence to promote more healthful marketing and encourage consumption of healthy foods, the authors suggest.
“The popularity of music celebrities among adolescents makes them uniquely poised to serve as positive role models,” says Alysa N. Miller, coauthor and 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.”