“Eat less food and you will lose weight.” Well, I think that proves I’m never going to be a successful influencer in the murky world of dieting. We all know the truth but in the land of digital, the emphasis seems to be on avoiding that as much as possible. This week former Health Secretary Shona Robison highlighted the damage being done by celebrity and Instagram influencer endorsements of spurious health and diet products.
The snake-oil salesmen who appeared in the old Wild West to push their potions have a modern equivalent in the z-list celebs promoting products in the equally unregulated online world. From diet pills to so-called skinny coffee or flat tummy tea, the goods being endorsed seem to offer quick and simple solutions to problems that are anything but. In reality, most are simply laxatives that will produce a small and immediate weight loss for obvious reasons but won’t address long-term health challenges.
However their efficacy is not the issue here, the real problem is transparency. Reality TV celebrities are increasingly being used to connect with a young audience on social media. When they are paid to endorse products and suggest spurious health or fitness properties without acknowledging a commercial link, that is a problem with serious implications.
According to Robison, such promotion of weight-loss products can have a “significantly damaging effect” on the mental health of young people. She wants the Advertising Standards Authority to crackdown on false promotion on social media but others go further.
The national medical director of NHS England thinks influencers and celebrities who endorse fad diets should have their social media accounts suspended or deleted. “Where celebrities and the platforms which promote them exploit this vulnerability by pushing products like laxative teas, diet pills and other get-thin-quick solutions, they are taking the health of our young people in their hands and should act with far greater responsibility,” says Professor Stephen Powis.
However, like a terrible game of whack-a-mole, the danger is that those removed simply resurface rebranded. Just this week TV presenter Ruth Langsford had to take to Twitter to point out she has no connection whatsoever to a company trying to sell diet pills in her name.
Policing individual accounts will be a moral and legal nightmare. It’s far better surely to target the technology they are using to give them access to young people. Facebook and the other social media platforms are facing intense scrutiny for the role they play in the dissemination of fake news and their failure to limit and control what they are publishing.
NHS England’s chief executive believes the way ahead could be to for them to pay a social media levy which would be used to support and expand mental health services for young people. It would be better if the problem wasn’t created in the first place but we are where we are and a contribution from the billions of pounds made in profit each year is the least the social media giants can do to compensate for the problems they leave behind in their wake.