Every parent has probably, at some point, worried about the types of role models their young children and adolescents are emulating. Perhaps it's because a certain celebrity is in the news for excessive drinking or substance abuse. Or maybe it's because a singer's lyrics are just a little too much to take. While these reasons are valid, a new study suggests that parents should be just as worried about the ordinary food and drink celebrities endorse, much of which is marketed specifically to young people.
Recording artists have become the go-to figures to promote commercial products. Consequently, children and adolescents are frequently their target audience. Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center have found that the vast majority of the food and beverage products marketed by popular music stars is unhealthy — and its contributing to an alarming rise in childhood and teen obesity.
The authors of the study used a rigorous method of nutritional analysis to evaluate the health value of food and drinks marketed by music stars by reviewing dozens of advertisements that cover a 14-year period. Lead author Dr. Marie Bragg, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, conducted a study three years ago of celebrity athlete endorsements using similar methods.
According to the data, soda and other sugary drinks, fast food and sweets are among the most common food and beverage products endorsed by popular musicians. The team says their study — which was published in the journal Pediatrics — also shows that none of the music stars identified in the study endorsed fruits, vegetables or whole grains. Only one endorsed a natural food deemed healthy: pistachios.
"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 Bragg. "Research has already shown that food advertising leads to overeating, and the food industry spends $1.8 billion per year marketing to youth alone."
The researchers chose their stars by looking through Billboard Magazine's "Hot 100" song charts from 2013 and 2014, verifying their popularity and marketing appeal with teens by reviewing Teen Choice Award winners. They then cataloged every endorsement between 2000 and 2014 by factoring in the number of views on YouTube of the celebrities' food and nonalcoholic beverage brand and taking in to account official commercials and other media sources. These endorsements included a celebrity's participation in an event sponsored by a product.
By separating the endorsements into different marketing categories, the researchers found that 65 of 163 pop stars were associated with 57 different food and beverage brands. Though consumer goods (at 26%) had the most endorsements, food and non-alcoholic beverages was the second-largest category, making up 18% of all endorsements. That means almost one in five endorsements by music celebrities is for a food or drink product.
To look at the nutritional value of these products, the investigators matched nutrition information on food labels with the Nutrient Profile Model (NPM). This system has been used in other food marketing research studies and provides a score that represents nutrient content. The health value of a beverage, for example, is calculated by looking at calories from added sugar. Of 69 beverages endorsed, 49 (or 71%) were sugar-sweetened with full-calorie soft drinks the most commonly endorsed. By contrast, endorsements for water appeared only three times. For this report, 21 out of 26 food products — or 81%— were deemed "nutrient poor."
Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year on youth-targeted ads, according to Institute of Medicine research, with American children seeing approximately 4,700 ads each year and teens viewing 5,900 ads per year. There were about 313 million views of the YouTube video versions for food and beverage endorsements associated with celebrities in this study's sample. Celebrity food endorsements promote higher product preference, and exposure to any kind of food advertising is linked to "excessive consumption," according to research.
In 2012, over one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Public Health Service. A number of studies have found food and beverage marketing to be identified as a significant contributor to childhood obesity. 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. "These celebrity endorsement deals are often worth millions of dollars each, suggesting companies find them critical for promoting products," said Bragg.
"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." Sadly, we've already seen the ineffectiveness of self-regulation in the marketing of food to kids.
Celebrities also should use their influence to promote healthier foods, the authors suggest. "The popularity of music celebrities among adolescents makes them uniquely poised to serve as positive role models," said Alysa N. Miller, co-author of the study 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."