Marie Bragg is a first-generation American, raised by a mother who immigrated to Florida from Trinidad. She watched her uncle in Florida cope effectively with type 2 diabetes, taking prescription drugs and following doctor-recommended dietary changes. But several of her Trinidadian relatives also had type 2 diabetes, and often sought to manage their diabetes by alternative means—through home remedies and spiritual practices.
This situation prompted Bragg to develop, at an early age, a strong interest in how approaches to health care may differ between cultures. But that wasn’t Bragg’s only interest—her other love was sports, having played on a high school soccer team that earned two state championships in Florida. That made her keenly aware of the sway that celebrity athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, could have on the public, particularly on young people. Today, Bragg combines both of her childhood interests—the influence of celebrities and the power of cultural narratives—in research that she is conducting as an Assistant Professor of Population Health at New York University Langone Medical Center and as a 2015 recipient of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.
Bragg is currently exploring the influence of popular culture and celebrity endorsements on individuals’ eating habits. Ultimately, she wants to learn how advertisements for unhealthy, high-calorie foods and beverages—and their tendency to target African American and Hispanic teens over other groups—might play into well-established disparities among racial groups in the incidence of obesity and diabetes.
Bragg set out on this research path as a graduate student at Yale University, New Haven, CT. In 2010, she combed through all the products on the shelves of two major Connecticut supermarkets to find every item that featured a sports reference . Over six months of data collection, Bragg and several assistants came up with a comprehensive list of over 100 food and beverage products.
Further analysis showed that the vast majority of products that featured some form of exercise and/or a professional athlete were loaded with sugar, fat, or calories, and low in fiber and protein—exactly the opposite of what would be considered healthy. What’s more, a third of the ads were targeted specifically at the most impressionable audiences: young children and adolescents.
In a complementary study, Bragg surveyed all product endorsements made by the top 100 “power athletes,” as ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010. Out of hundreds of athlete-endorsed products, almost 80 percent of food products were both high in calories and low in nutrients. In almost all (over 93 percent) of the beverages touted by those famous people, 100 percent of the calories came from sugar. Marketing data also showed that young people between the ages of 12 and 17 saw those ads on TV much more often than adults did. One has to wonder whether the celebrity athletes providing these endorsements have any idea about the potential harms of these products.
More recently, Bragg documented similar trends in product endorsements made by musical celebrities . Many of the celebrities in question, such as Beyoncé and the rapper Pitbull, also hold particular appeal for black and Latino youth.
With the help of her NIH award, Bragg is now taking the next step. She has developed a survey designed to reach young people online and in social media networks, just as the advertisements now do. The survey asks kids who identify as African American, Hispanic, or white what they think of particular ads and the products they promote. It will also ask questions designed to assess how those perceptions are likely to influence the products teens buy and consume. Through community organizations that serve adolescents, she has plans to explore how teens’ responses to particular ads affect their food choices in the real world.
Bragg’s work promises to help build evidence that could be used to inform policy efforts aimed at tackling health disparities and the epidemic of diabetes and obesity in creative, new ways. With any luck, it might also help to encourage more celebrities to endorse products that better align with their own healthy lifestyles and values.
For the rest of us, her findings already serve up new advice for healthy living. In addition to encouraging our kids to eat right and exercise, we might also urge them to use a heavy dose of skepticism before they load up on celebrity-backed products.
 The use of sports references in marketing of food and beverage products in supermarkets. Bragg MA, Liu PJ, Roberto CA, Sarda V, Harris JL, Brownell KD.Public Health Nutr. 2013 Apr;16(4):738-742.
 Athlete endorsements in food marketing. Bragg MA, Yanamadala S, Roberto CA, Harris JL, Brownell KD. Pediatrics. 2013 Nov;132(5):805-810.
 Popular Music Celebrity Endorsements in Food and Nonalcoholic Beverage Marketing. Bragg MA, Miller AN, Elizee J, Dighe S, Elbel BD. Pediatrics. 2016 Jul;138(1).pii: e20153977.
Marie Bragg (New York University Langone Medical Center, New York)
Bragg NIH Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Director’s NIH Early Independence Award Program (NIH/Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Library of Medicine; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute