Food Marketing: A Double-Edged Sword for Combatting Obesity in America

Posted on by Oliver Tang

A recent study published in Pediatrics entitled Popular Music Endorsements in Food and Nonalcoholic Beverage Marketing reveals disturbing trends in food marketing using celebrities that have important implications for addressing childhood obesity and food insecurity in America. Using a U.S. advertising industry database to examine all celebrity food product endorsements between 2000 and 2014, the authors of the study identified 65 music celebrities including Beyoncé Knowles and Justin Timberlake, who endorsed 57 food/beverage products involving 38 companies. The study used the United Kingdom’s Nutrition Profile Model — a commonly used database for evaluating marketing to children — to quantify the nutritional value of products. Alarmingly, these celebrity food and drink endorsements were overwhelmingly for unhealthy products: 80.8% of endorsed food products were nutrient poor and 71% of endorsed beverages were sugar-sweetened. Not one celebrity endorsed fruits or vegetables and only a single person endorsed a food product for nuts that had received a healthy score. When the researchers analyzed Youtube commercials for foods and beverages, ads endorsing a specific soft drink brand comprised 160 million of the 312 million views.

Eric Schlosser, journalist and author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of an American Meal, explains the power of food marketing that targets children: “People form their eating habits as children so [companies] try to nurture clients as youngsters.” As the study notes, marketing through music celebrities is especially effective at influencing children because they are large consumers of music. For example, one study published in the Journal of Child Health Care found that 54% of fast food advertisements and 34% of all food advertisements used “emotional appeals of social enhancement and peer acceptance.” The study points out how this approach appeals to children, especially adolescents, who can be “highly impulsive with their purchases.” These factors collectively help explain why food marketers view music celebrities as the best messengers and children as the best audience for their products.

This study is not alone in describing the problem. A 2005 review from the Journal of the American Diet Association found that 90% of food ads aired during Saturday morning children’s TV programming advertised unhealthy and low-nutrition foods. A 2010 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that fast food advertising steadily increased across all age groups of children examined from 2003 to 2007 and is now the most frequently seen type of food ad.

Nevertheless, just as marketing is harnessed to present unhealthy food and nutritional options to children, marketing also has great potential to encourage healthy nutritional choices. First Lady Michelle Obama discusses this in a recent editorial, Marketing Can Make America Healthier, posted in Adweek magazine. Mrs. Obama discusses the success of marketing initiatives targeting millennials such as the Partnership for America’s FNV marketing campaign. While some music celebrities may endorse unhealthy foods, she writes that there are celebrities such as Steph Curry, the first unanimous National Basketball Association MVP, who have chosen “fruits, vegetables, and water as their primary product endorsements.” Nevertheless, healthy options still face a numbers disadvantage when it comes to marketing: less than 1% of the $2 billion spent annually marketing food to Americans is spent on fruits and vegetables. The solution, First Lady Obama believes, is smarter and more effective marketing of healthy products. She gives the example of replacing the food pyramid with MyPlate, an easier to understand guide to describe healthy food choices. A 2012 report on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) directed by Susan Blumenthal, M.D., entitled Snap to Health: A Fresh Approach to Improving Nutrition in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, corroborates that a social-ecological approach to marketing, one that combines “environmental, policy, and systems changes as well as education and social marketing,” can be an effective strategy to fight obesity. The report elaborates that the strategy has worked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Somerville, Massachusetts; and cities within California.

Beyond all the current work being done to promote a positive nutritional environment in the United States, there is a menu of strategies that could put celebrity food endorsements to better use. The co-author of the Pediatrics study, explains that most companies endorsed by music celebrities offer healthier alternative products. She hopes as a result of her research, that the celebrity community will use their powerful voices to promote healthier food and beverage choices and motivate them to “leverage their influence to promote more healthful messages.” The Pediatrics study also advocates for a deeper scrutiny of voluntary corporate pledges related to food marketing, arguing that their restriction of reducing marketing to children under twelve years old is minimal compared to similar rules like the tobacco industry’s ban on marketing to anyone under eighteen years old. The University of Pennsylvania study also argues that other factors, such as each company creating its own standards and non-compulsory compliance with guidelines, limit the effectiveness of their pledges. Finally, programs like SNAP would benefit from data collection about what products are being purchased with program benefits. Applying research findings from fields such as marketing science and behavioral economics can help promote healthy food options for consumers. Tracking is especially critical: the aforementioned 2012 report on SNAP underscores that one of the many benefits of tracking purchases is the ability to “evaluate the impact of system improvements, including nutrition education and marketing.”

As the Pediatrics study notes, “The Institute of Medicine and U.S. Surgeon General have stated that individual-level health promoting behavior changes are very difficult to achieve because of the current unhealthy food environment.” While healthy choices and behavior are guided by individuals, they are also significantly shaped by environmental and societal factors. While it is very troubling that food and beverage marketing is playing such a powerful role in driving poor nutritional choices among children and adults, it is reassuring to know that smart public health marketing could be employed to promote healthier food choices for Americans, particularly children and youth. Developing effective marketing strategies for nutritious food and beverage products is an important ingredient in the recipe for achieving a healthier America in the years ahead.

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