Yale University caused quite a stir in the athlete marketing world last week when they published a study on the impact on youth of athlete endorsements of food and beverage brands. (http://news.yale.edu/2013/10/07/unhealthy-food-marketed-youth-through-athlete-endorsements) The study, conducted by Yale doctoral candidate Marie Bragg at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, analyzed 100 professional athletes and the brands they endorse. The results showed that sporting goods is the primary product category endorsed by professional athletes, followed by food and beverages. LeBron James, Serena Williams and Peyton Manning were cited as the athletes with the “most” food and beverage endorsements, while NBA athletes overall represented more food and beverage companies than other sports. The study concluded that the majority of these endorsement deals were for unhealthy food and beverage products.
The author then asserts that athletes are partly responsible for, or at least contributing to, childhood obesity in America, and goes on to conclude that these athletes should “use their status and celebrity to promote healthy messages to youth”. That’s right folks, it’s Peyton Manning’s fault that our kids are fat. It’s not lack of exercise, or poorly balanced diets, or too much screen time. It’s Peyton Manning.
In my completely biased, athlete marketer’s point of view, this report jumps to very dramatic conclusions, and unfairly paints a completely one-sided pictures of athlete spokespeople. For the record, I’ve always sided on the “athletes are role models” side of the debate. Whether we like it or not, our kids look up to superstar athletes as heroes. They want to jump, run, hit, dunk, swim and throw like their favorite stars. And of course kids are influenced by the brands athletes endorse. Otherwise brands wouldn’t pay them, and I wouldn’t have a job. So I do believe that athletes have influence on our kids. So of course if LeBron James endorses Coke, more kids will drink it. Does that mean we should conclude, as the Yale study does, that athlete spokespeople are responsible for childhood obesity in America? Absolutely not. This study is a myopic, biased and incomplete look at athlete endorsements. A few key questions to add some depth to the conversation:
Does LeBron actually sell cheeseburgers?
Brands hire athletes not simply to drive sales. They hire athletes to “personify” their brands, via association with personalities that are charming, healthy, active, successful and vibrant. McDonald’s doesn’t ask LeBron James to hawk Big Macs. They ask him to help promote an enjoyable, active, balanced lifestyle. And typically, brands like McDonalds and Coca-Cola partner with superstar athletes as part of larger strategic initiatives such as league/team sponsorships, national programs (3 on 3) and or Olympic activations. So the immediate goal of these partnerships is typically not to drive sales. Brands hire athletes to convey corporate branding messages, especially messages about balanced and healthy lifestyle choices.
If athletes encourage food choices, what else do they influence?
To play devil’s advocate, perhaps star athletes do deserve some blame for the obesity epidemic. If that’s the case, then don’t they also deserve credit for the POSITIVE influence they have on our youth? How many millions of kids are inspired to play sports by their heroes? If you believe that LeBron and company deserve blame for obesity, then surely you also agree they deserve credit for the millions of kids that get out and play organized sports everyday.
In today’s post-Tiger endorsement world, integrity is more important than ever. The athletes that get the lion’s share of endorsement opportunities also do a ton of great community work. At the very least, if athletes are to blame for consumption of fast foods and sugary drinks, then they also deserve credit for their tremendous contributions to their communities, and for encouraging kids to participate in sports.
Finally, this study is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The study looks at which categories athletes typically endorse. Of course sporting goods, fast foods and beverages are the top categories. These are also some of the top sports advertisers, so naturally their ads feature athletes. (The study failed to mention how few athletes choose to endorse alcohol brands). It isn’t fair to fault Peyton Manning for pitching Papa John’s Pizza instead of Granny Smith Apples. When was the last time you saw a Super Bowl ad for apples? Obesity isn’t Peyton’s fault. And Yale should know better.