A 2011 study in the Journal of Advertising Research found that an athlete endorsement results in an average increase of four percent in product sales.
If we see a celebrity we like hawking a product, whether it's an athlete, musician or actor, we're more likely to purchase that product. That in itself doesn't pose a problem, but things get hairy when celebrity athletes promote ultra-processed foods and other unhealthy items that contribute to our nation's obesity epidemic. A 2013 study found that 79 percent of athlete-endorsed food products were calorically dense and nutrient poor, while a 2016 study discovered that 80.8 percent of food products endorsed by famous musicians were calorically dense and nutrient poor.
Athletes and musicians comprise a considerable proportion of society's role models for teens, so the products they endorse can have a profound impact on decisions made by members of that demographic. In a time when our nation's diet is worse than ever, why isn't more attention being paid to this issue? To shed more light on the topic, we uncovered the reason why so many famous people endorse junk food and then offer a solution based on what one company is doing to combat it.
Money Is The Motivation
Professional athletes must maintain strict diets to achieve their peak performance, but you wouldn't know it by looking at their endorsements. LeBron James endorses Sprite and Bubblicious. Peyton Manning hawks Papa John's. David Ortiz claims to run on Dunkin' Donuts. Non-athlete celebs aren't much better—Snoop Dogg is on the payroll for Hot Pockets and Monster energy drinks, Blake Shelton pledges his allegiance to Pepsi and Pizza Hut and Taylor Swift is the face of Diet Coke.
Why do so many athletes and celebrities endorse products that are nutritionally terrible? The short answer is money. The companies behind these well-known products are billion-dollar enterprises with massive marketing budgets. It seems like the unhealthier the product, the more massive the enterprise behind it.
Given that he has one of the strictest diets in the NBA, there's probably little chance that LeBron drinks Sprite on a regular basis. However, he's not opposed to appearing in their advertisements for a hefty paycheck. Companies rarely disclose the exact figures of their endorsement deals, but the estimates are overwhelming. Kobe Bryant earned an estimated $12 million per year for endorsing McDonald's. It's believed Papa John's gave Manning an ownership stake in 21 franchise stores in the Denver area as part of their endorsement deal—in addition to a multi-million dollar contract. Beyonce's deal with Pepsi is rumored to be worth an astounding $50 million.
While many athletes find such deals too lucrative to turn down, some have taken a stand. Perhaps the most notable is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who famously spoke out against junk food endorsements in a 2015 interview with sports radio station WEEI.
"You'll probably go out and drink Coca-Cola and think, 'Oh yeah, that's no problem,'" Brady said. "Why? Because they pay lots of money for advertisements to make you think that you should drink Coca-Cola for a living? No, I totally disagree with that. And when people do that, I think that's quackery. And the fact that they can sell that to kids? I mean, that's poison for kids. We believe that Frosted Flakes is a food? You just keep eating those things, and you keep wondering why we have just incredible rates of disease in our country. No one thinks it has anything to do with what we put in our body."
"And of course all those companies make lots of money selling those things," Brady continued. "They have lots of money to advertise. When you go to the Super Bowl, who are the sponsors? So, like I said, that's the education that we get. That's what we get brainwashed to believe, that all these things are just normal food groups, and this is what you should eat."
But even athletes who publicly advocate for healthy eating, such as Brady, rarely seem to appear in advertisements for natural, healthy foods. Why don't such opportunities seem to exist?
Why More Famous People Don't Endorse Healthy Foods
"It would be ideal if athletes stopped promoting unhealthful food," Marie Bragg, lead researcher of the aforementioned study on athlete junk food endorsements, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. "But that's a tall order given how much money is involved."
But why can't the makers of healthier foods pony up some dough to get their own endorsers? Why do no star athletes seem to be hawking fruits or veggies or beans—you know, the stuff they actually eat?
For one, natural food industries are largely disjointed. The long supply chain—from growers to packers to distributors to suppliers to stores—makes it difficult to figure out the logistics of an endorsement. No one entity owns "carrots" or "avocados" or "plums." Junk foods, on the other hand, are sold under a recognizable, distinct brand. Peyton Manning doesn't endorse pizza. He endorses Papa John's. See the difference? Once these brands find a celebrity or athlete they'd like to endorse their product, they can strike up a deal and have them mugging for the camera in their next photo shoot.
However, one brand is looking to change the way we think about food endorsements. In 2015, a collaboration of companies, celebrities, athletes and foundations came together to launch FNV (an abbreviation for Fruits and Vegetables). The organization has a simple goal—to market produce with the same star power and influential advertising from which junk food has long benefited.
"FNV was inspired by big consumer brands, whose tactics are relentless, compelling, catchy and drive an emotional connection with their products," said Lawrence A. Soler, CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America in a press release. "We want to do the same thing for fruits and veggies, which have never had an opportunity to act like a big brand. Until now."
It's a pretty radical idea, and one that is long overdue.
The reality is that soda and fast-food companies will likely always be able to secure endorsers, given their powerful brands and bottomless budgets. FNV is attempting to fight advertising with advertising, showing that influential people like Cam Newton, Stephen Curry and Jessica Alba make fruits and vegetables a big part of their everyday lives. FNV has been reaching people mostly via social media, buy there are plans for bigger campaigns down the road. We love the idea, but FNV will need continued funding and smart advertising to be successful. At least the brand has shown that healthy, natural foods can play the endorsement game—which is a victory in itself.
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