Celebrity Endorsements are a Huge Part of America’s Obesity Problem

celebrity endorsements like beyonce's for pepsi can be dangerous

Justin Timberlake may be “lovin it,” and Beyonce may be praising Pepsi (for $50 million), but take those celebrity endorsements with a grain of salt: they’re nearly always bad for you (surprise, surprise), according to a new study.

The study, which was published in the journal Pediatricswas carried out by a team of NYU researchers. They found that of 163 of the most popular music industry celebrities (a group they designated by examining Billboard’s 2013 and 2014 “Hot 100” lists) 65 had endorsed food and non-alcoholic beverages, most of which were fast foods, sugary drinks, and desserts: will.i.am and Doritos, Jessie J and Pop Tarts, Pitbull and Sheets Energy Strips, and Carrie Underwood and Hershey, are just some of many celebrity endorsements that made the list.

Of the 26 food products endorsed in the study, 81 percent were deemed “nutrient poor,” and 71 percent of the 69 beverages were high in sugar. Only one food on the list – pistachios, which were endorsed by Korean star Psy and late night talk show host Stephen Colbert – was deemed healthy.

The study’s lead researcher, Marie Bragg, compared these endorsements to old-school tobacco marketing, according to the Washington Post, highlighting the prominence that advertising has long given unhealthy habits.

While the study didn’t analyze how endorsements influence consumption, one anecdote illustrates what seems obvious to most who see this information.

“When Dr. Pepper asked Pitbull to endorse, they got 4.6 million advertising impressions, and sales went up 1.7 percent [among Latinos] — despite declining sales in the overall soft drink category,” Bragg told NPR. Other studies have shown that teens and young adults who liked hit songs that referenced alcohol brands were more likely to drink than those who didn’t; the link is there, and it is strong.

“We hope that this study will start a discussion about shifting this marketing away from unhealthy products,” Bragg said following the publication of these results.

Currently, however, the money is in unhealthy foods, and it’s making all the difference when it comes to America’s obesity epidemic.

“The popularity of music celebrities among adolescents makes them uniquely poised to serve as positive role models,” said one of the researchers, Alysa N. Miller. “Celebrities should be aware that their endorsements could exacerbate society’s struggle with obesity – and they should endorse healthy products instead.”

Some efforts have been made to this effect, especially with the trend of cleaner food and more transparency in the industry. Celebs like Cam Newton, Kristen Bell, and Jessica Alba have endorsed the Partnership for a Healthier America — at quite a pay cut as compared to their fast-food-loving colleagues –, and Venus Williams and DJ Khaled were recently seen in an endorsement for Silk plant-based milks.

Let’s hope that despite the millions that are up for grabs in celebrity endorsements for unhealthy foods, this healthy endorsement trend continues, and that celebs posing with cans of sugary soda or fatty snacks will soon be as distant a memory as doctors vouching for their favorite cigarette brands.

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Beyonce image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.