Athletes peddling junk food: The beginning of the end?

Celebrities like Peyton Manning rake in big bucks for commercial endorsements, but recently Manning and other athletes have garnered criticism for pushing junk food. Could push-back from the public change the celebrity endorsement game?

Jack Dempsey/Invision for Papa John's/AP
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (l.) shoots a television spot with Papa John's Founder, Chairman and CEO John Schnatter, Oct. 26, 2012.

In a sense, it's not surprising news: a Yale University paper published Monday in the journal Pediatrics documents the tendency of athletes to endorse energy-dense, nutrient poor food, and a paper published two years ago in Australia suggested that when sports celebrities endorse junk food, public perception of those foods becomes more positive.

In a nutshell: popular athletes make lots of money by helping to sell extremely profitable, horrible food, and they're paid well because their endorsements work.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is singled out for analysis by the paper; interestingly enough, he is not just a promoter of Papa John's pizza, he's a profit participant. Here's the NBC News summary of Manning's situation:

The QB pockets $12 million annually by lending his face, voice, and persuasive powers to Buick, Reebok, Gatorade, and DirecTV plus Papa John’s – and he owns 21 Papa John’s stores in the Denver area, according to Forbes.
On Sept. 29, his pizza-pie profile even ignited some on-field ribbing: During the Broncos’ win over Philadelphia, Eagles defensive players tried to drown out Manning’s play calls by repeatedly screaming the name of the pizza chain.

Putting numbers behind the perhaps self-evident conclusions about the link between celebrity endorsers and junk food may help: dozens of articles are now being written about the relationship between sports, celebrity, and obesity, and why professional athletes, often a force for social good, have felt comfortable pushing such unhealthy food to the general public.

The problem as always, is a degree of deniability that comes with endorsements. An endorsement isn't an endorsement of an unhealthy lifestyle – when Eli Manning promotes Triple Double Oreos, it can be argued that he isn't advocating eating a dozen Triple Double Oreos every day, but rather that he's considering you sample a single Triple Double Oreo for dessert as part of an otherwise balanced, healthy diet.

But when that endorsement is seen as part of a much larger and generally acknowledged pattern – food companies pushing fatty, sugary, low-nutrition food using popular entertainers and sports figures – parents can be aware of the game that's being played.

And if enough parents gain enough awareness of the trends, it can make it increasingly unpopular for athletes to push HFCS-laden soda and cholesterol-soaked fast food, in the same way that any agent worth his or her salt will council caution about an alcohol or (perish the thought!) tobacco endorsement. In 10 years, the spectacle of a quarterback telling you to eat a circular, cheesy, pepperoni-studded heart attack might be unusual – or, like top stars touting Chesterfields and Winstons, a thing of the past.

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