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Hannah Montana and High School Musical stars promote high fat, high sugar productsFamously poor role models?

Published in The Food Magazine Friday 20th March 2009

Jessica Mitchell investigates celebrity endorsement for foods of poor nutritional quality.

Food companies often seek allies amongst the famous in their long running war of attrition against the nation’s willpower. Keeping dining tables laden with high fat, salt or sugar products can be sickeningly lucrative for their producers and celebrity hawkers, but sadly, just sickening for the rest of us. Alas, if only the humble apple could afford adverts with mini-skirted popstars pausing the world in order to sample its fragrance and taste.

Instead, as our survey shows, we have more than 25 well known folk who are more than happy to have had their ‘brand’ linked to foods and drinks of the type that the medical journal, The Lancet, has said they, “should be ashamed,” to promote. Products high in sugar or fat – or both – are particularly prevalent in our survey, but high salt products also have celebrity backers.

The majority of promotions we have included are current – but even those that are not currently being run by companies are still being viewed on sites such as YouTube.

Government inaction

The Government runs public health campaigns to encourage reductions in the consumption of salt and saturated fat – and its own dietary surveys show that many people eat far too much sugar. Every product in our survey would be banned, under Ofcom guidance, from advertising during certain television programmes of particular interest to child audiences due to their poor nutritional quality.

Yet, it is clear that minimal protection is afforded, not just to children, but to all of us – with celeb-promoted products in our survey appearing in radio ads, splashed on billboards, on company websites, on YouTube, and on TV shows with large child audiences but that fall outside the narrow remit of Ofcom rules. The Department of Health’s own Change4Life campaign further confuses the issue – by simultaneously telling us all to eat better, and then allying itself to business partners such as Pepsi and Kellogg’s.

Shameful survey

So, instead of cutting back on sugar consumption, our survey shows its vigorous promotion, with sports stars such as Ian Wright, Chris Hoy, Kelly Holmes and David Beckham all having been the face of high sugar products. It is hard to believe that double Olympic Gold Medal winner Kelly Holmes ever woke up to Coco Pops Coco Rocks cereal, but she has had her face on the box as part of Kellogg’s Wake up to Breakfast campaign. Perhaps David Beckham wore off the 55grams of sugar calories in the half litre bottles of Pepsi he promoted – but it won’t prove so easy for your average office worker or chair-bound schoolchild.

John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) promotes high fat, saturated fat and salt Country Life butter. Girls Aloud sell the high fat, saturated fat and sugar Kit Kat Senses bar.

Gary Lineker advertises high salt Walkers crispsThese Walkers crisps are covered by Ofcom regulations and cannot therefore be advertised during children's TV programming due to poor nutritional quality. So why does football hero Lineker advertise them elsewhere?

Money hungry?

Clearly many are in it for the cash – making themselves available for endorsement contracts worth, according to our advertising mole Lenny Haines, “Easily hundreds of thousands of pounds.” It is tempting to suppose that the sports stars should know better than most folk – but surely every star has access to the information they need to make an informed decision about endorsements. Clearly not all actors, sports people, or musicians are willing to endorse such products, Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson is on record as opposing George Clooney’s Nespresso adverts due to the long-running boycott of Nestlé products lead by campaign group Baby Milk Action.

She has told The Food Magazine: “I know very little about this actually, not being in the kind of big movies that advertisers like to use – BUT – I do remember being given a choice about the products that Nanny McPhee could be connected with. I, of course, nixed all the Nestlé and high sugar/salt content stuff.”

The problem of celebrity promotion seems to be getting worse, according to Deputy Chief Executive of the National Heart Forum, Jane Landon, “Following the introduction of the Ofcom rules on food and drink advertising to children on TV, the number of food ads featuring celebrities has fallen during children’s programming. But the number of celebrity food ads at other times of day has apparently increased which means that children’s overall exposure is still high. Celebrity ads usually combine familiarity, aspiration and humour – all highly appealing to children, and advertisers know this is an extremely successful recipe for selling everything from butter to crisps.”

Stephen Gerrard promotes Lucozade Sport Brand advertising: The issue of brand advertising is a bit more complicated as current TV advertising regulations cover products, not brands. So, for example, although some Lucozade and Coca-Cola products are high in sugar and cannot be advertised during children's programming, some can. But – when Stephen Gerrard promotes Lucozade Sport and the singer Duffy promotes Diet Coke doesn't this add to the lustre of all products in the brand? Yet, there seems no sign that regulators will be attempting to tackle this issue of brand advertising.

Celebrity charter

The Food Magazine is a longtime backer of the 9pm watershed for junk food ads, but clearly the problem is bigger than this. Our current regulators seem utterly convinced that voluntary guidelines and industry self-regulation is the way to move forward on most food policy issues, so we will not wait for them to take further action – perhaps furthering the cause of legislation that would also ban the use of celebrities in adverts for foods of poor nutritional quality – in all media.

We will be developing our own ‘celebrity charter’ – to give a higher profile to those well known people who will not engage in such endorsements, and to put pressure on those who do. Emma Thompson has told us she would certainly sign up to it, “There's so much RUBBISH out there it appalls me that we are used to sell it.”

The Food Magazine would also like to see agents work to build such refusal clauses into movie contracts. We have experimented with campaign titles – but have yet to find one we are happy with. Keep your eyes open for our own version of, “I would rather go naked than promote junk food...”

Write in to us if you find such a promotion or with your idea for a title.

The Royal Warrant is no guarantee of good nutritionThe Queen grants her warrant to high fat / saturated fat Hellmann's mayonnaise, and to Cadbury Dairy Milk – not just high in those fats, but high in sugar too. The Queen, of course, makes no money for the issue of her Royal Warrant, but The Food Magazine has previously called for her to review the products and companies it can go to, ideally instituting nutritional criteria.