Junk food sponsors at Olympics – fair game?
With the Olympics finally upon us – in the literal sense for those of us living in London – there has been a highly charged media debate over the role of McDonalds and Coca-Cola as ‘top sponsors’ and the marketing of junk food.
If you were lucky enough to see the Olympic flame pass through London on its final approach to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, you may have been surprised to see the relay being led by buses emblazoned with Coca-Cola branding. You may also have been surprised to discover that the Olympic Park would house the world’s largest McDonalds.
Corporate sponsorship of the games is not new, and nor is criticism of the commercialisation that seems to come with it. The debate ahead of this year’s Games in London has focused on a continuing partnership between the Olympic organisers and two brands that are globally recognised for products that are, for the most part, extremely unhealthy.
Of course, the underlying objection stems from the relentless obesity epidemic that is fuelling rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes worldwide. Changing diets around the world now mean that we are consuming far too many calories, too much fat, salt and sugar, and are not eating enough plant foods. Far from being a question of personal choice, lifestyle factors that increase our risk of cancer, such as overweight and obesity, are influenced in large part by our immediate environment. But another very important aspect is the role of marketing.
There are difficult decisions to be made with regards to the role of companies that aggressively promote unhealthy products, with one eye trained on new and emerging markets.
Many studies have now shown that marketing and promotions influence preferences, purchasing behaviour and consumption. Marketing increases both brand recognition and total consumption of a product – something that sponsors all recognise. Coca-Cola, Olympic sponsors since 1926, notes that the Games are its “biggest asset”. This is why sponsorship by McDonalds and Coca-Cola is so worrying – the Olympics represent one of the biggest marketing opportunities of all time, and billions of people worldwide tuned in to watch the opening ceremony.
Throughout the build up to the Olympics the exposure given to the sponsors through online, television, print and billboard marketing will have benefited the companies enormously but who else benefits?
The WHO has long recognised the issue of marketing to children. In its recommendations to governments it urges them to strengthen controls on the marketing of high fat, sugar and salt foods to reduce the harmful impact on children. Policy options include strict rules on which products can be advertised to audiences when children are likely to be watching. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) seems not to have heeded this advice when it signed partnership agreements with Coca-Cola and McDonalds until 2020, despite the fact that a large part of the audience will be children and adolescents.
As the obesity crisis worsens, and diet-related diseases affect more and more people worldwide, we can no longer approach this issue as if it were ‘business as usual’. There are difficult decisions to be made with regards to the role of companies that aggressively promote unhealthy products, with one eye trained on new and emerging markets.
The Olympics are by no means alone in facing this challenge, but the scale and coverage of the event, as well as their association with health and wellbeing, make it particularly inappropriate. One solution might be to look to France where the “Loi Evin” strictly regulates alcohol marketing, including a ban on sponsorship. A move by the IOC to look at Olympic sponsorship in the same way would bring them in line with recommendations from the world’s leading health bodies.