Celebrities unwittingly plug alcohol, junk food to their young followers on social media

CHICAGO — Celebrities unwittingly plug booze and junk food to young people on their social media sites, according to new research. An analysis of nearly 5,200 products from 181 popular stars reveals that nearly nine in ten feature unhealthy goods in their posts.

Scientists at the University of Chicago say celebrities are often posing with or posting about alcohol, and processed foods like snacks and sweets. Yet fewer than five percent had been backed by the products’ manufacturers — showing they play a role in their everyday lives.

“Sweet bakery products and alcoholic beverages were the most commonly depicted foods and beverages in social media posts of highly followed celebrities. Posting such foods and beverages can shape followers’ perceptions of what is normative to consume,” the authors write. “The findings suggest the greater proportion of highly followed celebrity social media accounts depict foods and beverages with an unhealthy profile, primarily in non-sponsored posts,” the authors write.

Half of all beverages were alcoholic beverages, as were nearly two-thirds of those in sponsored posts.

Celebrities often turn to social media to promote their products

The study follows warnings from campaigners that celebrity advertisements risk “glamorizing” underage drinking Last year British star Rita Ora came under fire for plugging tequila brand Prospero on Instagram. The “Hot Right Now” singer, 28, declared it “highlights strong independent women.”

Similarly, David Beckham has used Instagram to promote his sponsorship deal with Haig Whiskey. Singer Nicki Minaj also used it to plug her MYX fusions red wine blend.

Study authors looked at food and beverage containing posts on the same photo and video-sharing platform. They followed athletes, actors, actresses, television personalities and music artists. “Celebrity social media posts engage millions of young followers daily,” the researchers write in their report. “But the nutritional quality of foods and beverages in such posts, sponsored and unsponsored, is unknown.”

Grading the nutritional quality of foods and beverages celebs post online

They were rated using the Nutrient Profile Index (NPI) based on sugar, salt, energy, saturated fat, fiber, protein and fruit and vegetable content. A score of zero indicated least healthy, and 100 most healthy. Foods and beverages under 64 and 70 respectively were classed as “less healthy.”

Overall, 158 accounts (87%) earned a “less healthy” overall food nutrition score, and 162 (90%) earned a “less healthy” overall beverage score. For foods, posts with healthier nutrition scores were associated with significantly fewer likes and comments from followers. Conversely, the posts that showed the celebs chowing down on unhealthy snacks or drinking alcohol saw much greater engagement, indicating “greater social approval.”

“Worldwide, traditional advertisements feature unhealthy foods and often target youths. However, youths have rapidly migrated from traditional media to social media such as Instagram and Twitter,” researchers write. “Social media have greater influential potential than traditional media, allowing users to choose targeted content and to interact with posts through liking and commenting. Popular brands’ social media accounts have capitalized on these features to promote unhealthy foods and beverages to youths online.”

Creating the perception users are broadcasting their real life, social media platforms boost perceived authenticity and credibility of posted content.

“Celebrities are particularly influential. On social media, celebrities are perceived as fellow users but also as more credible than ordinary users and more trustworthy than television advertisements,” the paper, published in JAMA Network Open, explains. “Celebrity posts can influence viewers through attitude alignment, social connection and positive meaning transfer from likable people to the foods and beverages they depict.”

Children can easily catch their favorite stars happily boozing

The findings are  consistent with research demonstrating the ease with which youths can access alcohol content on social media, and that posts frequently associate alcohol with positive attributes.

“Depicting alcohol as such a large share of beverages matters because social media exposure to alcohol content is associated with alcohol consumption in adolescents and young adults, and these processes are mediated, in part, by perceived norms,” the authors say.

Beverage posts from male celebrities depicted higher alcohol content than those by female peers. In addition, beverage posts from music artists depicted higher sugar content than those from athletes or actors, actresses and TV personalities.

Most (95.2%) of the celebrity social media posts were not sponsored by food and beverage companies.

“They were primarily non-sponsored depictions of the role of foods and beverages in celebrities’ everyday lives,” the report states. “Celebrities are, of course, entitled to post foods and beverages as they wish on their personal social media. They themselves are individuals existing in societies that value and normalize unhealthy consumption, and it is possible social media posts by the general public are similarly unhealthy.

Do it for the kids!

Ultimately, it may be prudent for famous people to pay more mind to the way their posts might influence the behaviors of their followers. Showing themselves taking care of their bodies and eating healthy foods can lead their fans to do the same.

“Given celebrities’ role model status and broad reach, improvements in the nutritional quality of their social media posts may be a potential opportunity to change the profile of foods and beverages that are perceived as normative and desirable to consume,” study author Bradley Turnwald, of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, says in a statement to South West News Service.

Pushed to name some of the celebrities, he adds: “I can’t call out any one in particular. I can only talk about the results across the full sample of celebrity athletes, music artists, and actors.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.