In 2012, the Los Angeles Lakers held an intervention for Dwight Howard, the team’s All-Star center. Howard was joined by his personal assistants, including his chef, and Dr. Cate Shanahan. In hopes of salvaging Howard’s miserable season, and improving his quality of life off the court, Shanahan, with the Lakers permission, was there to wean Howard off his addiction: sugar.
Howard, who anointed himself Superman, was heroically consuming, through candy and soda, the equivalent of 24 chocolate bars a day. Candy was stashed in his nightstand, in his car, hidden in his locker at the Staples Center. His affinity for sugar well-known, Skittles once sent him 30 pounds of their product to sample.
For Shanahan, Howard’s inconsistent and mostly terrible play that season could be explained, at least in part, by his diet. "It looked like he was wearing oven mitts out there," Shanahan told CBS. "It reminded me of patients who have pre-diabetes and neurological problems because of how sugar impacts the nervous system. That's where I became really concerned."
“With the help of researchers and psychologists, advertisers now have access to in-depth knowledge about children's developmental, emotional, and social needs at different ages.”
Howard, along with his teammates, was put on a diet of healthy fats, with reduced carbohydrates and protein. Nutrient-dense foods replaced the electric shock of sugar binges, and, gradually, Howard’s play improved. He lost weight and his glucose level, once frighteningly high, returned to a healthy range. Howard had stopped eating junk, at least temporarily, and his life improved for that reason, but off the court he never stopped selling it.
In a commercial that ran before Super Bowl XLIV, with 106 million viewers watching, Howard had a dunk-off with LeBron James; at stake was a Big Mac and fries. In another spot, from 2011, Howard slams Gatorade while being examined by actors in lab coats, his ability to slurp back sugar presented as a scientific feat. In one of his earliest commercials, Howard chugs down Vitamin Water and shouts, “the boy gets his vitamins!”
Athletes have a long history of shilling things that can slowly kill you: sugary snacks, fried meats wrapped in other fried meats, booze, cigarettes. Attaching your name to tobacco is now considered to be in poor taste, the same for alcohol, but endorsing garbage food to increasingly obese and sick viewers? That’s a tradition that carries on.
The NBA has the youngest fans in sports, according to Nielsen, with nearly 15 percent of the audience falling between the ages of two and 17. For marketers, it’s a dream demographic. In many cases the brand loyalties—to teams or players—are already established; the task becomes transferring those allegiances onto other products.
LeBron James, the NBA’s biggest star, earned an estimated $44 million in endorsements in 2014, nearly double his basketball salary. His partners include McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Bubblicious Gum, where he has a signature flavor, LeBron’s Lightning Lemonade.
A 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics examined 512 brands endorsed by 100 athletes. Nearly a quarter of the endorsement deals were with food or beverage products. Seventy-nine percent of the food products endorsed were energy-dense and nutrient-poor and 93 percent of the beverages received all of their calories from added sugars. Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback, who also owns 21 Papa John’s Pizza franchises in Colorado, was found to have the most endorsements for unhealthy food, followed by James and Serena Williams. The study also found that the television viewers most often pummeled by food and beverage commercials were between the ages of 12 and 17.
In 2005, at the urging of Congress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the marketing of foods directly to children. That resulted in the Institute of Medicine study, "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity," which analyzed the results of 123 published, peer-reviewed studies addressing links between food marketing and children's preferences, requests, consumption, and obesity.
“The prevalence of obesity in children and youth has occurred in parallel with significant changes in the U.S. media and marketing environments ,” the report reads, before citing that even babies, according to the Department of Agriculture, now consume measurable quantities of soft drinks, as much as 2,000 calories a day.
In Consumer Health: Making Informed Decisions, J. Thomas Butler writes that food companies begin their marketing efforts as early as preschool in an effort to mine the psychological underpinnings of youth food choices.
“This is obviously and unabashedly an effort to use research to exploit the suggestibility of young children,” Butler writes. “With the help of researchers and psychologists, advertisers now have access to in-depth knowledge about children's developmental, emotional, and social needs at different ages.”
In an interview with the New England Journal of Medicine, Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, says this type of research is about “what pushes kid’s buy buttons.”
“They are really getting into the minds of young children to find out what kinds of colors, flavors, package designs and messages are most appealing in trying to sell food,” Nestle says. “This would be just fine if they were selling a benign product but they are selling junk foods, and making junk foods normal to eat.”
To combat this, Nestle advocates for policy action around marketing to children, including restrictions or bans on the use of cartoon characters, (oft-exaggerated) health claims on food packages, marketing in schools, stealth marking, and celebrity endorsements. When an athlete endorses food products, no matter how unhealthy it is, their association alone influences consumers to overestimate the product’s nutritional content.
“You have to look at the environment of food choices in which parents are operating,” Nestle says. “Right now the environment is to make it as difficult as possible to control what their kids are eating, or even to influence what their kids are eating, because food marketers put so much effort into marketing directly to kids.... I think marketing to children crosses an ethical line and should be stopped, period. I think there should be no marketing to children of any food products whatsoever.”
The next step, it seems, is getting the best athletes in the world to agree.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.