Diet Products (Celebrity Endorsements)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th March 2019.

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Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I thank the many MSPs across the chamber who have added their names to my motion. It shows that the issue and, importantly, the need to confront it has overwhelming support from across this Parliament.

My motion highlights the petition, “LET’S STOP influencers and celebrities working with products promoting speedy weight loss”, which can be found on It has already gained more than 7,000 signatures and was organised by the founder of the empowered women project, Mandy Jones, whom I welcome to Parliament, along with others.

We all know the pressures that young people, particularly girls and women, face these days to look good or have the perfect body, and the damaging effect that that can have on their mental wellbeing. As the mum of a 15-year-old daughter, I know that very well.

The Office for National Statistics reported that young people who describe themselves as relatively unhappy with their appearance report higher levels of behavioural and emotional difficulties than those who are relatively happy with their appearance. In Scotland, the health behaviour in school-aged children survey found that at the age of 15 more than half of girls described themselves as too fat. According to Wellbeing Works, Dundee, that perception makes them incredibly vulnerable to the kind of irresponsible and false advertising that promotes speedy weight loss.

A lot of the time, that advertising uses influencers or celebrities to get its message across and it is put out across social media to target specific audiences. The adverts are generally accompanied by before and after photos, often taken on the same day, giving an inaccurate portrayal of the effect of the advertised product. Examples of that type of advert that have then been banned are not hard to find. One for Flat Tummy Tea that appeared on Instagram with before and after photos was banned for the misleading health claims that it made, while others have been banned on the ground of social irresponsibility for promoting unhealthy body images.

I recognise the work that the Advertising Standards Authority does in investigating those types of adverts, but I would like further restrictions to be introduced and for the ASA to take a more proactive role in policing that type of advertising. To that end, I have been working closely with my colleague Alison Thewliss MP, because the role of the ASA is reserved, to see how we can further highlight the issues and work with the ASA to combat them.

I met the ASA recently and I know that it would like to do more. One of the outcomes of the meeting was an agreement that my office would collect and compile a dossier of examples of that type of advert to pass on to the ASA for further investigation. I urge my fellow MSPs and the public to get in touch with me with any examples of adverts that they have concerns about and we will take them forward.

I would like celebrities and others to understand the influence that they can have on younger people and, ultimately, for them to stop endorsing those unhealthy and damaging weight-loss products. They need to realise the negative impact of their endorsements, as Lucinda Evelyn did. She is an Instagram influencer from Glasgow who came out against promoting weight-loss products, saying:

“It’s almost sort of selling anorexia, eating disorders and mental health problems. It was selling people insecurity and I didn't really agree with that so decided to step back from those kinds of products”.

Good for her!

In July 2018, the Scottish Government published “A Healthier Future—Scotland’s Diet & Healthy Weight Delivery Plan”, which recognised the role that advertising, including celebrity endorsements, can play in helping people to make healthier, more responsible food choices. The plan highlighted the need to

“shift advertising towards healthier options to empower people to make choices ... that support their” health

“and wellbeing”.

I hope that, rather than contributing to the problem, celebrities will help to promote that vision.

I understand that the Scottish Government will soon publish research that explores the reported worsening of mental wellbeing among adolescent girls in Scotland, to which body image and social media appear to be large contributing factors. Perhaps in her reply, the minister could outline what action the Scottish Government might take as a result of the research.

Although the Advertising Standards Authority, Governments and, ultimately, celebrities and influencers have their part to play, social media companies need to take more responsibility for the content that is advertised on their platforms. Unfortunately, I am still waiting on a response from Facebook and Instagram. I would like those companies to be more proactive and socially responsible in dealing with such advertising, and I invite them to let us know what action they will take to address those issues.

We all need to work together if we are to tackle the issues effectively. I would also like to use the debate to enable a wider discussion on the societal pressures on young people and adults to obtain Instagram-worthy lives and the impact that that is having on mental health. As I said, I have a 15-year-old daughter, so I see at first hand the pressure on young people to conform to a societal or social media definition of what is beautiful. I am sure that we can all relate to that.

We want to send a different message to our young people, one with the hashtags #BeHappyAndHealthy, #BeBeautifulInYourOwnWay and #BeWhatMakesYouYou. I hope that the debate will contribute to achieving that aim and will serve as a call to address the issues. [