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Swifter, Higher, Stronger…Fatter?: The Olympic Games and Junk Food Advertising to Children

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Cancun Chu/Getty ImagesOver the past two weeks, the 2012 Olympic Games have showcased remarkable athletic achievements in varying feats of skill, speed, strength and agility and are a testament to the boundless potential of the human body.  The Olympic Games are—or at least should be—a source of inspiration for children around the world to lead healthy, active lives, particularly in the face of a growing global obesity epidemic.  Yet, as you know if you’ve tuned in to watch even one event, the world’s largest junk food manufacturers—Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Cadbury’s—are nearly as prominent as the athletes themselves.  Through exclusive sponsorship deals with the International Olympics Committee (IOC), these companies have used the Olympics to associate their brands with athleticism and success and beam their advertisements promoting unhealthy products into the homes of millions of children across the globe. Many have hailed the London Games the ‘best ever’, but as the global epidemic of childhood obesity marches on, we should ask ourselves whether we really want soda and fast food companies sponsoring international sporting events.

The Childhood Obesity Crisis and the Impact of Food Marketing

The obesity epidemic is emerging as one of the world’s most pressing public health challenges of our time with a staggering 170 million children estimated to be overweight globally.  Obesity places children and adolescents at risk for a range of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression, making obesity second only to smoking as a cause of preventable death. While industrialized nations have long faced childhood obesity, the epidemic is spreading at an alarming rate in low-income countries as their populations gain greater access to processed, low-nutrient foods. Indeed, over two-thirds of the world’s population now lives in countries where overweight–related health issues cause more deaths than underweight-related issues. Treating obesity and obesity-related conditions costs billions of dollars a year. In May 2012, the U.S. Institute of Medicine estimated that the annual cost of obesity-related illness in the U.S. alone is more than $190 billion, equal to 21 percent of annual medical spending. Such costs are unsustainable globally. 

As the devastating health and economic consequences of childhood obesity continue to grow, policymakers and public health practitioners have begun exploring ways to reduce this burden of disease in the United States and around the world. Although childhood obesity is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach, there is increasing evidence that food marketing to children influences eating behavior. Research shows that even when children have been educated about the benefits of maintaining a healthy diet, they do not yet have the highly developed behavioral control mechanisms required to self-regulate their consumption when they are constantly inundated with junk food advertising. Young children under the age of 12 are particularly affected by food marketing and research suggests that they are unable to view advertising critically and have difficulty comprehending its persuasive intent.

Further, pairing athletics with unhealthy food advertising conveys a misleading message to children that poor nutrition is acceptable if accompanied by an active lifestyle. Studies have shown that while physical activity is critical for weight loss and good health, caloric intake plays a greater role in weight gain than exercise.  Perhaps most alarming is recent research which suggests that children perceive fast food to be less unhealthy when it is associated with sport. 

Reducing the volume of alluring junk foods advertisements targeting children should be a critical part of efforts to reduce childhood obesity.  Indeed, there is growing international consensus that aggressive food marketing to children is a problem that needs to be addressed in the battle against childhood obesity. In the recent Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that “research shows that food advertising geared to children is extensive… and that television advertising influences children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption.” The World Health Organization has also urged its member states to reduce the negative impact of unhealthy food marketing on children with its recommendations on food marketing to children.

Despite strong evidence that advertising impacts eating behavior, the debate over food marketing to children continues to rage.  Some critics blame childhood obesity on individual willpower and parental responsibility while others—including the food industry itself—aggressively assert that food marketing is constitutionally protected, at least in the United States. On the other hand, those who support limits on such marketing refute this traditional view that blames obesity on a failure of personal responsibility. In a recent report, the U.S. Institute of Medicine noted that individuals cannot truly exercise personal choice because their options are severely limited and biased toward the unhealthy end of the continuum. As Tony Blair put it, “millions of individual decisions, at millions of points in time impose enormous collective costs.”  Indeed, in the wake of this enormous health crisis, should parental responsibility be the public health community’s only line of defense against an industry that spends $1.6 billion annually on advertising to children and adolescents? 

Regardless of where you fall in the debate, promoting unhealthy eating habits and making it more challenging for parents to encourage healthy eating are clearly not aligned with Olympic values. By selecting Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Cadbury’s as top sponsors of “the most far-reaching sporting and cultural event in the world to date”, the IOC failed to support sound public health efforts to combat this crisis. 

The 2012 Olympic Games: A Winning Marketing Formula for Food Manufacturers

For what is reported to constitute a mere 2 percent of the IOC’s total revenue, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Cadbury’s have purchased an unrivalled platform to promote and co-brand their products with the Olympics.  The IOC has set no standards or recommendations to limit the extent of the food industry’s engagement or to protect children from the harmful effects of such junk food marketing.  The companies have exploited their Olympic sponsorship to maximum effect in their promotional efforts. McDonald’s has the exclusive right to sell brand-name food at the Olympics and the Olympic Park was home to the world’s largest McDonald’s restaurant with the ability to serve up to 12,000 customers an hour. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have exclusive rights to sell non-alcoholic beverages and Cadbury’s is the Olympics’ “official treat provider.”  As the primary presenting partner of the Olympic Torch Relay, Coca-Cola maintained a highly visible presence throughout the 8,000 mile route with signs, banners, and a Coca-Cola bus leading the relay.  Outraged parents even reported that free samples of Coca-Cola were pushed into the hands of children as young as toddler age lining the torch route.

The companies also benefit from co-branding with the Olympic Games and use this affiliation to promote their products to youth around the world. Both Coca-Cola and McDonald’s use the Olympic Rings in their promotional activity, including on their packaging and in television and online ads.  For example, an ‘8-pack’ of Olympic athletes serve as Coca-Cola ‘Ambassadors of Active Living’ while Cadbury’s launched a limited edition Olympic chocolate bar and an ‘Unwrap Gold’ campaign which gave consumers the chance to win a luxury trip to watch Olympic events.  Conscious of criticism that they are promoting an unhealthy diet, the big food sponsors use the Olympics as an attempt to “off-set” their negative impact by linking their brands to athletics and exercise schemes.  McDonald’s has even gone so far as to give away toy ‘stepometers’ to children in its Olympic Happy Meals.  No amount of physical activity or exercise scheme promoted by these sponsors, however, will make the unhealthy diets which fuel their profits any less unhealthy. 

Olympic marketing opportunities have been incredibly lucrative for the companies involved. The Unwrap Gold promotion has been Cadbury’s most successful marketing campaign, and Coca-Cola proclaimed that “The Olympic Games is the Coca-Cola system’s biggest asset.” The success of these efforts—particularly in the face of a global childhood obesity epidemic—raises significant questions about the role of global food marketing targeting children and is unlikely to stem the tide of such marketing when companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s recognize the gains associated with doing so.

Next Steps for the IOC: A Turning Point?

Although the IOC has faced criticism about its food marketing policies, the organization has yet to see the absurdity of allowing fast food manufacturers to sponsor the Olympics and have extended sponsorship deals with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola until 2020.  Public outcry over the role of these businesses in the 2012 Games, however, may represent an important shift in cultural attitudes and social norms about fast food promotion to children.  In June 2012, the London Assembly (an elected body that reviews the work of the Mayor of London) urged the IOC to adopt sponsorship selection criteria that would require the IOC to exclude food and beverage companies strongly associated with high calorie brands and products linked to childhood obesity. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges lamented that Olympic junk food sponsorship deals clearly “send out the wrong message to children.” And, in a scathing report, the Children’s Food Campaign criticized the IOC for their one-sided sponsorship deals with food and beverage companies.  Even the IOC president, Jacque Rogge, recently acknowledged that there was a “question mark” over allowing junk food manufacturers to sponsor the Olympics.

Where the IOC has failed, leaders in other industries are taking measures to limit aggressive food marketing to children.  In response to concerns about the entertainment’s role in childhood obesity, the Walt Disney Company recently announced that all products advertised on its child-focused television channels, radio stations, and websites must now comply with new nutritional standards. If the IOC wants to be viewed as the international community’s leader in sport, it should follow Disney’s example and revise its policies and criteria for sponsorship selection.  By doing so, the IOC could take an important step forward in changing social norms with respect to aggressive food marketing to children at sporting events and support a more positive public health legacy.

The Olympic Games are undoubtedly a valuable opportunity to promote sport, health, and equality to the world’s youth. As an international, highly visible nonprofit organization with the responsibility to encourage and support the development of sport for all, the IOC should not allow its positive messages to be undermined by companies whose goal is to promote unhealthy foods to children. If the Olympics Games are to truly live up to this year’s motto and “Inspire a Generation” to be healthy, the IOC must, at a minimum, protect children from aggressive marketing of junk foods and exclude junk food manufacturers from sponsoring and advertising unhealthy products at the Olympics.


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  • Katie says:

    This article helped me a bunch i am doing a report on the impaction of childhood obesity from the olympics thx so much!

  • The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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