Diet Products (Celebrity Endorsements)

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

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Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I thank Shona Robison for securing this important debate and I pay tribute to Mandy Jones for highlighting the issue, which is important. I hope that, by the end of the debate, more people will have signed Mandy’s petition.

Social media can be a positive platform and, used responsibly, it can change society for the better. Personally, I find social media to be a useful tool to promote campaigns, such as those spreading period positive messages, and to bring together wonderful campaigners. However, there is a very ugly side of social media that involves people spreading hate speech and the trolls who viciously target others, often with little action from Twitter or Facebook, which in my experience do not often reply even to politicians.

Young social media users are exposed to the good and the bad. Young people such as my 12-year-old daughter now have greater access than ever to the celebrities who they admire. Young people look up to their heroes and want to be a little bit like them. They follow make-up tutorials and fashion trends, and they buy perfumes, make-up and clothing branded with their favourite celebrity’s name and image. However, shockingly, those everyday product endorsements have, as we have heard, become something far more sinister, especially through social media. Weight-loss products are being marketed to our young people in a damaging and entirely unethical way. Celebrities and influencers are endorsing diet and detox products that they know little about and exploiting young people’s trust while reaping the financial rewards.

As well as the fact that the products are untried and untested by the celebrity endorsers, the claims about the results that they bring are completely misleading. Maintaining a healthy weight is important and, for most of us, it can be achieved by a good diet and exercise. However, these products falsely promise a quick fix. As Shona Robison explained, before and after photographs are often taken on the same day, but with slightly different lighting, so they are entirely fake. Young people are parting with their pocket money or hard-earned cash for nothing more than magic beans.

Like other members, I am extremely concerned about the potential harm to health. Ingredients have been found to be toxic and, tragically, people have died after taking diet pills. Just last month, Scotland’s food watchdog issued a warning about the deadly substance known as DNP, which is found in some diet pills and which has caused 26 people to die since 2007. Huge harm is also done by encouraging disordered eating. We know that eating disorders can be fatal, and the charity Beat has said that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Anorexia is experienced by more women than men, which is unsurprising when we are surrounded by damaging portrayals about how women should look.

It is important to stress that many celebrities use their status to inspire and empower others. For example, Jameela Jamil has used her celebrity platform to call out celebrity diet pill endorsements. I agree with her when she describes those celebrities as

“double agents for the patriarchy”.

These predatory adverts are saying to young people, “You’re not good enough as you are, but take this pill and you will be.” That exacerbates people’s insecurities. Is it any wonder that people are tempted to take diet pills that promise a quick fix when they come recommended by trusted idols?

I pay tribute to all campaigners who use their platforms for good by spreading body-positive images and messages and seeking to ban predatory celebrity endorsements. Shona Robison is correct to say that the ASA should be more proactive and social media firms should stop advertising potentially harmful products.