Study: Athletes Send Mixed Messages to Youth by Marketing Junk Food

LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Serena Williams are the worst offenders

LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Serena Williams are tops in their sports and make great spokespeople for any marketer. But they are also at the top of a less-flattering ranker—endorsing junk food marketed to youth.

The NBA, NFL and WTA champs were the top three athlete endorsers promoting unhealthy foods in TV, radio, print and online ads reaching teens 12 to 17, according to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

For example, James pushed Sprite and McDonald's; Manning was in ads for Nabisco and Pepsi-Cola; and Williams promoted Oreos.

While the food and beverage industry has committed to advertise to children only food that meets specific nutrition criteria under the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, the self-regulation only applies to children under 12. The Yale study points out that once children reach a certain age, they quickly become a target. 

“The promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor products by some of the world’s most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health,” said Marie Bragg, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate at Yale, who suggested that athletes should use their celebrity to promote healthier messages.

"It's as if the dollars blind them to the fact they are role models," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Of the 512 brand endorsements associated with the top 100 athletes in the study, food and beverage brands represented the second-highest endorsement category for athletes at 23.8 percent, surpassed only by sporting goods and apparel at 28.3 percent.

Overall, the top 100 athletes endorsed 122 food and beverage brands. Sports beverages were the largest individual category endorsed by athletes, followed by soft drinks and fast food. Most of the 46 beverages endorsed by athletes received all of their calories from added sugar.

Other sports personalities called out for promoting junk food to youth were Chris Paul, Joe Mauer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sidney Crosby, Ryan Sheckler, Tony Stewart, Apolo Anton Ohno and Ryan Howard.

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