Companies have been using celebrities including superstar athletes to endorse junk food as a large part of their brand communication process for years, perhaps since Red Rock Cola first got Babe Ruth to endorse their soft drink in the 1930s. From a marketing perspective, it’s brilliant because it opens up a whole new market for the brand- the athlete’s fan base. For athletes themselves, it’s lucrative because, well, they get paid. A lot. What is interesting here is when we observe which brands these athletes are endorsing, and then analyze what message they are sending.

A study published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics by researchers from Yale, Stanford, Duke, and Harvard, studied 512 brands endorsed by 100 top athletes. Out of all the brands, 122 were for food (49) and beverages (73). They deemed that almost 80% of the 49 food products were "energy-dense and nutrient-poor," and 93% of the 73 beverages got all of their calories from added sugar. Here’s a summary of what they found.

Table 1: Athletes Ranked by Number of Food or Beverage Brand Endorsements

Endorsed Food and/or Beverage Brand Sports Organization/Team Athlete Name
Sprite, Vitaminwater, McDonald’s, Powerade NBA/Miami Heat LeBron James
Gatorade, General Mills Wheaties Fuel Cereal, Nabisco, Pepsi-Cola NFL/Denver Broncos Peyton Manning
Kraft Oreo, Gatorade, Nabisco 100 Calorie Pack Snacks, Got Milk? WTA Tennis Serena Williams
Vitaminwater, McDonald’s, Powerade NBA/LA Clippers Chris Paul
Gatorade, Kemps, Pepsi-Cola MLB/Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer
Amp Energy, Mountain Dew, Hellman’s Mayonnaise NASCAR Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gatorade, Dempsters Bread, Tim Hortons NHL/Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby
Red Bull, Dew Tour, Dew Tour Wendy’s Invitational Sponsored Event, Dew Tour Toyota Challenge Skateboarding Ryan Sheckler
Burger King, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s NASCAR Driver Tony Stewart
Coca-Cola, America’s Milk Processor, Nabisco (Oreo) Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno
Subway, Powerade MLB/Philadelphia Phillies Ryan Howard

Source: Power 100 rankings and AdScope, LA, Los Angeles; MLB, Major League Baseball; NASCAR, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing; NBA, National Basketball Association; NFL, National Football League; NHL, National Hockey League; WTA, Women’s Tennis Association

The study also found that the bulk of the viewership of commercials that sport these products were between the ages of 12-17, whether the company intended it or not. But before we pass judgment on these athletes and brands, we may want to address a few of the questions this raises.

By recruiting celebrities for endorsing junk food, companies and brands may not seem like they are on an agenda to promote obesity and unhealthy behavior, but whether we like it or not, they are out to make money. In order to choose an appropriate celebrity athlete, brands gauge the attractiveness of a celebrity by studying their credibility (perceived expertise and trustworthiness) and the compatibility between the celebrity and the brand (in terms of physical appearance, intellectual capabilities, competence and lifestyle). These factors translate into the brand’s payoff, especially if the athlete is a winner. Studies show that stock prices increase every time an endorser celebrates a major victory. In fact, athletes with strong track records emerged as predominantly effective endorsers in most respects.

Now that the business aspect of this seemingly counterintuitive phenomenon is understood, you may ask: Do you appreciate Peyton, LeBron and Serena endorsing junk food? But this question seems to raise a whole new set of eyebrows. You may want to ask yourself the following questions too:

• Should athletes be expected to project a positive image of health & fitness? • What if they were advertising tobacco, alcohol, or even condoms?

• Tobacco, alcohol, and firearm manufacturers are prohibited from marketing to children. Why aren’t producers of products that predispose children to obesity, diabetes and heart disease?

Of course, these are all questions that will be subject to opinion depending on a host of various factors. The purpose of this article is merely to make you more aware of what’s happening in the world of marketing, athlete endorsement, and how it may or may not affect people’s health.

As an advocate of health, fitness, and free thought, I believe that healthy lifestyles are the key to wellbeing. Of course, junk food isn’t part of a staple diet, but I believe in moderation, and once in a while, it doesn’t seem like a Sprite, or an Oreo or two will be the cause of poor health. Athletes obviously work hard and follow structured, disciplined training routines- they don’t live on the products they endorse. Until this becomes a legal issue, we can only do what is in our control. As parents, teachers, and health care providers, our aim should be to educate children about healthy lifestyles, physical activity, and nutrition. Blaming Serena for your child’s obesity problem seems a little unfair, especially if you haven’t set any good examples yourself. We live in a world where we are exposed to hundreds of advertisements a day. But we have the choice to buy, consume, and control what we think about the products available to us. Perhaps we just need to be reminded of that?