A Supersized Ethical Dilemma


By: Kayla Gordon

What happens when an individual’s curated self, with upward of 20 million Twitter followers, becomes an ethical dilemma? NBA All-Star LeBron James has been widely criticized in recent years for his endorsements of unhealthy brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. James is not alone in his endorsement of junk food. Many high-profile athletes represent brands that nutritionists warn against eating. Endorsements are not inherently bad; however, ethical problems arise when endorsements do not match personal opinion. Serena Williams earned $11 million in 2014 to endorse brands like Gatorade and PepsiCo but touts a healthy raw food diet. The stories that health magazine authors write about Williams’ healthy habits contrast sharply with her endorsement of Oreos.

Studies show that junk food endorsements by famous athletes are harmful to children’s eating habits. Does this fact make the endorsements unethical? The Word of Mouth Marketing Association Code of Ethics bases its guidelines on three key principles: honesty of relationship, honesty of opinion and honesty of identity. WOMMA states that a communicator should “say what you believe.” Although LeBron James is not a public relations professional, he is constantly speaking to the media and promoting his personal brand.

James is a prominent face of McDonald’s but tripped up earlier this year with a statement to the media implying that he doesn’t eat its food. Later, he backpedaled and jokingly told the media that he eats McDonald’s every day. Recently, Kelli Matthews advised that strategic communicators do a “gut check” when concerned about the ethicality of a campaign. She said, “Ask yourself, would I be comfortable if my friends or family were involved in this campaign?”

I wonder how LeBron James and his wife, who just opened an organic juice bar in Miami, would feel about their three kids eating McDonald’s “every day.”

What do you think: Are athlete junk food endorsements unethical?

This Article Has 11 Comments
  1. I absolutely do not believe that “junk food” endorsements are ethical. When an athletes become popular and find themselves in the spotlight, they also find themselves in another situation: being looked at as a role model. It is imperative that public figures be aware of the influence they have on their publics. But the bottom line is that these athletes do these endorsements for purely selfish reasons: economic reasons. When athletes pull in millions for endorsing these unhealthy companies, they are benefiting while others are being harmed.
    An athlete may argue that they never claimed to be a role model, however, they are aware of what comes with being in the spotlight. It is up to both the athlete and the company to use endorsements in ethical ways that do not benefit at the expense of others.

  2. Rhianna Gelhart says:

    I agree with the above comment that these endorsements by athletes are just not ethical. They are in direct contrast to the “honest of opinion” criteria. There are so many endorsements that these athletes can sign to boost themselves without promoting unhealthy eating habits in those who look up to them. Why not endorse brands that are healthy, or sports gear that they actually use everyday? There are many ways around these endorsements that will not promote bad habits in their followers and will not put these athletes in the position of not being authentic in what they do. Whether or not these athletes want to recognize they are role models is their own personal decision, but they can not deny that with their prominence in our culture their actions do have an effect on our society. If they didn’t, they would not be sought after for endorsements in the first place. I completely agree with Kelli in terms of the “gut check”, sure they can get away with saying they didn’t intend for bad things to come from their endorsements but is that what they really believe to be true?

  3. Alexis McNeal says:

    I definitely think that Athletes doing fast food endorsements are completely unethical. Unless they actually do eat the food everyday, which I highly doubt, then they shouldn’t be endorsing it and saying it is a prevalent part in their every day diets. Children look up to them and want to be just like them, if LeBron says he eats McDonald’s everyday and that’s how he is so agile on the court, what do you think little aspiring children are going to want to do? It’s definitely just one big unethical downward spiral, awesome post.

  4. Natalie Mangan says:

    I also believe athletes supporting fast food endorsements is unethical mainly because they are creating a false image which could be misleading to the public. Why should people be allowed to endorse products that they would not actually consume? Although some may think it’s more of a publicity stunt for the brand, some people may actually believe that the athletes, such as Lebron James, actually consume unhealthy foods from brands like McDonalds and Coca Cola. Obesity is a growing problem in the United States and young people might associate their athletic role models with unhealthy food. This is simply not ethical.

  5. Deanna Borocz says:

    I completely think that athletes who decide to “support” fast food companies is completely unethical. They are creating a fake image towards the public and aren’t being true to themselves creating lies and spreading them across their social media platforms and on TV screens all over the country. I love how you brought up the question of “would I be comfortable if my friends or family were involved in such a campaign?” They are contradicting themselves after saying they eat a relatively healthy lifestyle yet get endorsed by major fast food companies which are part of the obesity epidemic in kids, teens and adults across the nation.

  6. Sasha says:

    Great post, Kayla. I do not think it is unethical for professional athletes to endorse junk food and franchises like McDonald’s. Although, Lebron James did joke about eating McDonald’s every day an endorsement isn’t necessarily telling consumers that this is the food they should choose to fuel themselves with on a regular basis. However, since a lot of McDonald’s advertising is targeted towards children, who are much more impressionable than communications students like ourselves, I can see how some may view it as unethical.

  7. Andrea Harvey says:

    This is a good topic to write on, and totally controversial. On one hand, junk food in general is bad. But it stays here because people enjoy it and it’s cheap—not everyone can afford to eat like Serena Williams or some of these other athletes. The food that companies like McDonald’s sells is undoubtedly bad for us. But I remember seeing a scene from a documentary in which a mother talked about how she frequently buys meals for her family from McDonald’s because it’s all she can afford. Without companies like these, it’s likely her family wouldn’t be able to afford to eat three meals a day. Additionally, these companies provide jobs for people who can’t get jobs anywhere else. So it does have some benefits—even though it’s unfortunate that the food is so unhealthy. This, of course, is a whole other jar of pickles that we might not want to get into. But in terms of ethics, it’s an important factor to consider. The real question, which is incredibly difficult to answer, is, where do you draw the line? What will likely result from this campaign and is it worth it?

  8. Jordan Hathorne says:

    Kayla, you make an extremely interesting point here! I think there is a very fine line between someones personal and professional brand and voice. Although I do support endorsements, I personally feel like this is kind of hypocrisy is unethical. At the end of the day, like it or not, Lebron James is a brand just like Coca-Cola or Nike. In this way, I personality think Lebrons hypocritical stance on McDonalds is unethical and bad for his brand.

  9. SSM Student says:

    I really like this topic. OF COURSE LeBron James doesn’t eat at McDonalds. Neither did Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, and Usain Bolt. But money, man. Money really talks. The entire purpose of any company hiring a celebrity or athlete to endorse their products is to use very basic manipulation, for the end result in getting more people to buy their stuff. Line of reasoning for McDonald’s – A lot of kids and people love LeBron James – a lot of people love and want to be like LeBron James- if LeBron James is holding our burger, people will think it’s okay for the greatest athlete of this generation to eat, so that means they can eat it and be totally okay!- kids and people buy burgers.
    $$$$$$$$$—–> McDonald’s pocket
    —Alexander Cano

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