Diet Products (Celebrity Endorsements)

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

I am really thankful to Shona Robison for securing this important debate, and I, too, thank Mandy Jones, the founder of the empowered woman project, for submitting her petition.

Of course, it is not just women who are affected by this, but speaking as a woman, I am only too aware of the pressures that we face to look a certain way. In the past, I have succumbed to diet products that promised me the world but left me disappointed, and I am sure that I am not the only person in this place to have bought meal replacement milkshakes and celebrity fitness videos.

However, I see the hidden pressures that are faced by young people, and the peer-led advertisements on social media with which teenagers are continually being bombarded and which are more discreet than traditional television advertising. Sometimes they are for products that encourage rapid weight loss and which, as a result, potentially create unrealistic body expectations and low self-esteem. It is absolutely right that we tackle this issue together and call out a practice that has hidden dangers for the mental health of an entire generation of women.

As much as I like to think of myself as being young, I am not the target market for these celebrity endorsements. I do not watch much reality TV, I do not really use Instagram and I have reached an age at which I am cynical enough to recognise false promises. However, the scary thing is that this sort of advertising is very much targeted at young people and predominantly young women. The difference between now and 20—or even 10—years ago is the existence of the smartphone, which, as we know, is increasingly coming under fire for the impact that it can have on people’s mental health. Instead of the odd TV advert catching people’s attention, peer-led or sponsored advertising is constantly bombarding young people and adults via social media. If we bear in mind how often we are on our phones these days, it is hardly surprising that this has become a lucrative business.

According to the experts, diet supplements pose a risk to health. Detox teas and weight-loss coffees are among the products that in recent years have surged in popularity due to celebrity endorsements. However, the same products are often not endorsed by official bodies, so we cannot say what has or has not been medically approved. As we have heard, some products have come under fire for not clearly advertising that they contain laxatives, and even those that do not contain laxatives often contain diuretics that can cause dehydration, diarrhoea and fluid loss followed by fluid regain. Often they are sold on the basis that they should be taken continually over a certain period of time, but without much guidance on what people should be eating.

Such products are sold by celebrities who are approached by companies because of their popularity and following on social media. What makes that all the more concerning is that the companies wish to benefit from the relationship between celebrity and fan—a relationship that is based on trust and adoration.

I admit that, until I started writing my speech for the debate, I had not heard of most of the products that have been referred to. To get a better understanding, I asked a young member of my team to show me some of the celebrity accounts that push such products, and I was shocked by how image focused the posts are and how difficult it would be for most people to obtain a similar physique. More to the point, I can understand how, when bombarded by such images, those who are exposed forget that it is possible to be a healthy weight without looking like their favourite celebrity. Such images risk making unrealistic body expectations the norm, and those expectations negatively affect people’s self-esteem. No one wants that to happen, particularly when it can have a long-term impact on people’s lives.

I again thank Mandy Jones for her hard work on the campaign. As so many children and young people are affected by mental health issues, it makes absolutely no sense for images and products that we know to be potentially harmful to be promoted simply to line the pockets of a few individuals. I believe that social media companies and celebrities have a greater role to play, and I hope that the debate will spark a wider discussion on this important topic.