Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) recently conducted a study concluding that “the majority of the food and beverage brands endorsed by professional athletes are for unhealthy products like sports beverages, soft drinks, and fast food.” Marie Bragg, et al., “Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing,” Pediatrics,November 2013. Noting that previous research by public health advocates has criticized the use of athletes’ endorsements in food marketing campaigns for often promoting unhealthy food and sending mixed messages to youth about health, Rudd Center researchers state that theirs is the first study to examine the extent and reach of such marketing.

The researchers reportedly selected 100 professional athletes for study based on Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 report, which ranked athletes according to their endorsement value and prominence in their sport. Information about each athlete’s endorsements was gathered from the Power 100 list and AdScope, an advertising intelligence service, and sorted into categories: food/ beverages, automotive, consumer goods, service providers, entertainment, finance, communications/office, sporting goods/apparel, retail, airline, and other. The nutritional quality of the foods featured in athlete-endorsement advertising was assessed, along with the marketing data.  

Of the 512 brands associated with these athletes, food and beverage brands were the second largest category of endorsements behind sporting goods, observed the researchers. “We found that LeBron James (NBA), Peyton Manning (NFL), and Serena Williams (tennis) had more food and beverage endorsements than any of the other athletes examined,” said lead author Marie Bragg.  

The researchers also found that (i) “sports beverages were the largest individual category of athlete endorsements, followed by soft drinks, and fast food”; (ii) “79 percent of the 62 food products in athlete-endorsed advertisements were ‘energy-dense and nutrient poor’”; and (iii) “93 percent of the 46 advertised beverages only had calories that came from added sugar.”  

“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,” observed Bragg. She and her co-authors assert that professional athletes should be aware of the health value of the products they are endorsing, and should use their status and celebrity to promote healthy messages to youth. See Rudd Radar Press Release, October 7, 2013.