It’s Not Your Imagination: Celebrities Hawk Pretty Much Only Junk Food

Psy’s was the exception to the rule when it comes to celeb endorsements of snacks, beverages, and other products.
Psy dances in a 2013 Super Bowl ad for pistachios. (Photo: YouTube)
Jun 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There are probably few parents out there who haven’t cast a suspicious eye on the influence pop stars have over their teenagers’ lives—but smart parents may want to look beyond the headlines of the supermarket tabloids and worry a little more about what kinds of junk food those celebrities are hawking on the supermarket shelves.

Even if you take a rather cynical view of celebrity culture, the results of an ingenious study published this week in the journal Pediatrics are kind of shocking. Although they could only have dreamed back in middle school that getting a Ph.D. might one day lead to this, researchers from New York University’s Langone Medical Center compiled a comprehensive ranking of today’s music celebrities most popular among teenagers, some 163 bold-faced names in all, ranging from will.i.am, Shakira, and Juicy J to Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Flo Rida, and Blake Shelton. They then analyzed the nearly 600 product endorsements associated with those celebrities from 2014 all the way back to 2000, focusing on endorsements for foods and beverages.

Of the litany of foods these celebrities were paid handsomely to endorse, how many do you think might qualify as remotely healthy? Half? A quarter?

How about just one. Apparently, once upon a time, South Korean rapper and YouTube phenom Psy (of “Gangnam Style” fame) appeared in a spot for pistachios. Pistachios would seem to rank as a healthy snack choice, especially when you consider all the other junk that celebrities who regularly garner Teen Choice Award nominations are selling to America’s overweight teens—everything from Pop-Tarts and Doritos to McDonald’s and Cracker Jacks.

As the authors note, “None of the music stars identified in the study endorsed fruits, vegetables, or whole grains.”

But they’re not shy about taking big bucks to endorse full-calorie soda and other sugary drinks. Among all the food and beverage brands, PepsiCo ranked No. 1 for its use of teen-targeted celebrities; more than two dozen appear on the star-studded list of pop sensations who are paid well to show some love to Pepsi’s products. Sugar-heavy beverages like soda have been linked to an increased risk for obesity and related diseases.

All in all, 81 percent of the food products endorsed by celebrities were deemed “nutrient poor,” and 71 percent of the beverages were sugar sweetened.

“Because of our nation’s childhood and teenage obesity public health crisis, it is important to raise awareness about how companies are using celebrities popular with these audiences to market their unhealthy products,” Marie Bragg, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “Research has also shown that food advertising leads to overeating, and the food industry spends $1.8 billion per year marketing to youth alone.”

Yet as Bragg and her coauthors point out, voluntary restrictions on advertising junk food to kids only tend to apply to marketing to children under 12—even as teenagers have proved to be highly susceptible to ad claims and celebrity endorsements, and teenagers exhibit more impulsive spending behavior. Meanwhile, one in three American teenagers is either overweight or obese, and according to the American Heart Association, obesity is the No. 1 health concern among parents, eclipsing drug abuse and smoking.

What about the pop stars who are raking in the dough to be shown swilling soda in front of the camera or popping Mike and Ike candy?

As study coauthor Alysa Miller of NYU’s Department of Population Health puts it, “The popularity of music celebrities among adolescents makes them uniquely poised to serve as positive role models. Celebrities should be aware that their endorsements could exacerbate society’s struggle with obesity—and they should endorse healthy products instead.”