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'The Obesity Olympics': Marketing junk food to kids

Kid eating chicken sandwich
REUTERS/Nicky Loh
Research suggests that children perceive junk food to be less unhealthy when it’s associated with sporting events.

Somehow I doubt that the athletes competing in the London Olympics trained on a diet that included regular servings of McDonald’s Happy Meals, Coca-Cola soft drinks and Cadbury’s chocolate bars.

But that’s what our children may think as they’re bombarded with ads from these three official Olympic food sponsors over the next two weeks. For, as a public health official told a BBC news reporter earlier this year, research suggests that children perceive junk food to be less unhealthy when it’s associated with sporting events.

And the food manufacturers know this. Cadbury’s (the games’ official “treat” sponsor) has called the Olympics “the biggest sales opportunity of our lifetime.” That’s not hyperbole. Cadbury’s pre-games Willy-Wonka-like “Unwrap Gold” promotion was the most successful in the company’s history.

Coca-Cola also had huge pre-game success with its sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay celebration that (literally) ran throughout England for weeks. The company’s logo was constantly visible at these family-oriented events, and Coca-Cola promotional products and samples were handed out to children as well as adults by people in tracksuits along the relay route. (Marketing junk food directly to children is normally banned in Britain.)

McDonald's has celebrated the Olympic spirit by building its largest-ever restaurant (seating capacity: 1,500). The company expects to sell 50,000 Big Macs, 100,000 servings of french fries and 30,000 milkshakes during the 29 days of the Olympics and its companion event, the Paralympics.

‘The Obesity Olympics’

Earlier this week, the London-based Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) released a scathing report called “The Obesity Olympics” that takes the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to task for permitting junk-food manufacturers to continue to sponsor the Games.

“Even before a medal has been won, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s are already big winners of the Games,” write the authors of the report. “Their sponsorship buys them unchallenged prominence and it gives them a particularly valuable association with athleticism and success. They want people either to forget that their flagship brands are high in calories, sugar and fat, or believe instead that consuming such food and drink is part of a healthy, and ‘winning’ formula. The increased emphasis these companies place on ‘obesity-offsetting’ — funding sports equipment and exercise schemes — is also part of their drive to convince us that they are trying to be a positive force for the nation’s health.”

You’d have to do a lot of “offsetting” to counter the calories in the flagship junk-food products sold by McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury, the report points out. To burn off the calories in a meal that includes a Big Mac and a medium-sized Coca-Cola, you’d need to bicycle for 110 minutes, for example. And to undo the calories in a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate bar, you’d need to swim laps for 30 minutes.

“The Olympics have become a celebration of 'big,'” a CFC official told the Guardian. “For the junk food companies who sponsor the Games, that means big restaurants, big audiences, big brand value, big profits. But for children that could also mean bigger waistlines and bigger health problems later in life."

A cynical strategy

IOC president Jacques Rogge acknowledged this summer that there might be a “question mark” over the suitability of having fast-food manufacturers sponsor the Olympics. But that didn’t keep the IOC from letting McDonald’s and Coca-Cola sign up for another two rounds of the Games.

“What we now see coming to fruition in London2012,” write the authors of the CFC report, “is a cynical money-before-health strategy that values pounds in the pocket, but ignores the pounds of fat in our already obese society, contradicts medical advice and undermines parents’ best efforts to encourage their children to eat healthily.

“Members of the International Olympic Committee must hold up their hands and recognise that they bear some responsibility,” the report adds. “Ultimately though, it is up to all of us — whether spectators, armchair fans or Olympic refuseniks — to make a stand against the double standards which see companies making fat profits out of a sporting event at the expense of the health of our children and young people. If we do so, London2012 could yet have a more positive legacy: as the start of a successful movement to change the way the Games, and other major sporting events, select their sponsors and expect them to behave.”

Don’t hold your breath.

Countering the message

Parents will need to make an extra effort this Olympics to point out to their children that athletes don’t become top competitors by eating nutrient-poor and calorie-laden burgers, soft drinks and chocolate bars, no matter what the TV ads suggest. In fact, not eating such foods is what makes them more competitive.

Take the example of Ryan Lochte, the 27-year-old American swimmer who is likely to win several medals in London. He overhauled his diet after not performing as well as he hoped in the 2008 Olympics. 

Before, his typical breakfast was often “two or three McDonald’s egg McMuffins, some hashbrowns and maybe a chicken sandwich,” he told People magazine’s Kristen Mascia. And he’d down a whole bag of chips before each practice. Now, however, Lochte starts his day with scrambled eggs, fruit and oatmeal, and eats salads or healthy wraps for lunch and dinner. His new diet has made him much fitter, he told Mascia.

That’s a great message for our children — and one no Olympics sponsor will be promoting.

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Comments (1)

Junk Food sponsorship

I was very struck by the delightful Missy Franklin giving a post-competition interview with a bottle of Coke prominently in the foreground. It was totally persuasive...I wanted a cold Coke immediately, and I wanted to swim like Missy.