Monday, October 07, 2013

Athletes, Junk Food, and The Genesis of Shame

Photo via my friend and colleague Rob Stevenson (coincidentally sent to me yesterday)
In an article published today in the journal Pediatrics, Kelly Brownell and his team quantify the food endorsements of professional athletes in terms of nutritional quality.

In what no doubt is an entirely unsurprising result, the authors found that the foods endorsed by athletes were pretty much garbage. 79% of the foods the top 100 athletes (as determined by Bloomberg's 2010 Power 100 rankings) shilled for were energy dense and nutrient poor. 93.4% of the beverages shilled had 100% of their calories coming from added sugars.

And the world's worst sport celebrity offenders? LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Serena Williams.

The study's authors point out that back in the day Big Tobacco also used sports celebrities to endorse their poison, but that in 1964 the tobacco industry adopted the voluntary Cigarette Advertising Code that forbid the use of sports celebrities.

Now I don't expect Big Food to follow suit, at least not any time soon, but the authors also discuss an interesting 2004 story out of China back when their largest cigarette company (one not beholden to the American voluntary code), signed a 21 year old Olympic gold medalist hurdler to endorse their brand in print ad and commercials. What happened next is heartening. Criticism was so fierce that Beijing TV dropped the commercial. Eventually, even Liu, an athlete reported to "endorse everything", said no to the Big Tobacco paycheque.

Exactly why Liu finally walked away is something we'll never truly know, but I can't help but imagine that shame, or at the very least intractable embarrassment and/or scrutiny that was anathema to his desired image, helped to make his decision.

And that's why this journal article's important.

It's not that it was ever a secret that athletes abused their fans' trust by endorsing junk food, in fact their endorsements have become so normalized that no one thinks to criticize. Writing this article on Saturday morning, two days before the embargo lifts, I'm betting this story is going to make a great many newswires today and in so doing, markedly help in the denormalization of sport-celebrity junk food endorsement. More importantly, it will provide the media with an easy and obvious hat to hang an article on each and every time the LeBron James, Peyton Mannings and Serena Williams of the world try to make a buck off the health of children.

And let me say to Mr. James, Mr. Manning and Ms. Williams specifically here - shame on you. Shame on all of you.