In the wake of the Olympics I thought that it would be timely to write about product endorsement. Every time the Olympics roll around there’s much hullabaloo about sponsorship and the promotion of crap food like McDonald’s. But the promotion of food is not just associated with the Olympics. It’s going on all the time and marketers are getting savvier about it. Enter the role of dietitians.
As dietitians we position ourselves as the experts on nutrition and healthy eating. We’re constantly battling misinformation and trendy diets, telling people to come to us for guidance in making better food choices. We are the unsexy voice of reason in a sea of cold-pressed juice and expensive shakes. Who better than dietitians then to promote food, beverages, and supplements?
I see so many Tweets, Instagram photos, and blog posts by dietitians promoting myriad brands of food, drink, and supplements. I took a little scroll through some prominent Canadian media RDs Twitter feeds when I was considering writing about this topic. I found a number of sponsored posts; some obviously so and others not. Because this isn’t about pointing fingers, making enemies, and in-fighting, I’ve decided not to share any of these posts with you. Many of them come from excellent dietitians. Perhaps they truly believe in the products they’re promoting. Is it wrong to make money from promoting a product that you like and believe others could benefit from? It’s also a hard truth that we all need to pay the bills and making a living as a private practice dietitian can be extremely difficult.
The problem with dietitians promoting brands and products is that it churns up the murky conflict of interest waters. There is no way for us to know if the dietitian tweeting about a supplement or posting a photo of their branded snack honestly believes in the value of the product. In promoting a product, ethically, a dietitian needs to believe that it would be beneficial to those they’re promoting it to. When you’re posting things to social media you’re posting them to anyone else using that platform. It’s pretty near impossible to know if the people looking at your posts are going to benefit from the products you’re promoting.
As dietitians, our first responsibility lies with the public. It’s our job to help people meet their nutritional needs and goals. When we promote products we may be undermining those goals. As much as I’m loathe to see athletes and pop stars promoting pop and fast food, they don’t have that same ethical obligation. While it’s true that dietitians aren’t generally promoting such nutritionally void products, we still need to be extra careful about the message that we’re sending to people. Seeing the promotion of a sports supplement or an energy bar by a dietitian sends the message to the public that these things are healthy and they should be consuming them.
I mentioned earlier that some of the sponsored posts were obviously sponsored while others were not so clear. Some dietitians have put a note in their profile that they are spokespersons for certain brands. Others use hashtags like #ad and #spons when posting about a product. Others don’t have any indication that a post is sponsored so maybe they’re just huge fans of a product or maybe they don’t make their affiliation readily apparent. If I, another registered dietitian, can’t tell if a post is sponsored, how can anyone from the public be expected to?
The sad truth is, I’ve gotten to the point where every time I see a post by an RD in which a specific brand is mentioned I automatically assume that it’s sponsored and discount the value of the product. And that’s not good. Not being upfront about our conflicts of interest and potential biases undermines our credibility. We have enough trouble gaining the confidence of the public without undermining ourselves. I’m not saying that all dietitians should stop promoting all products. There are some brands that I genuinely love and could theoretically be convinced to promote. We’ve all got to pay the bills and if you can do so by marketing a product that you believe in then power to you. However, people shouldn’t have to dig to find out if a dietitian is being compensated to promote products. We need to be upfront about our affiliations so that the public has all of the information they need to make an informed decision about whether or not the product they’re seeing posted by their fave dietitians is for them.