Amid post-Olympics calls to review Australia's sporting performance, a coalition of health agencies has urged the government to restrict junk food companies from investing in junior sport and instead assist organisations to find more appropriate sponsors.
Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), said that junk food companies such as McDonald's and Coke had already made considerable inroads into ‘owning' junior sport via direct sponsorship and backdoor marketing.
"With companies such as McDonald's, Coke and Cadbury's sponsoring the biggest sporting event, the Olympics, we have witnessed the greatest global display of mixed messaging possible. However, this happens on a smaller, local scale every week in Australian suburbs as these companies use junior sporting codes and athletes to push their brands.
"It's time for government to step in and break this unhealthy nexus between junk food and junior sport by calling a time-out and restricting sponsors whose products are in conflict with a healthy lifestyle.
"The government has previously stepped in to help adult sports shake off their unhealthy association with tobacco sponsorship and more recently alcohol sponsorship. It is long overdue that they did the same for children's sports and their unhealthy association with junk food sponsorship," said Ms Martin.
Research has shown that children are particularly susceptible to the influence of brand sponsorship of sport with 10 to 11 year-olds reporting they liked to return the favour to sponsors by buying their products; and that sponsors were 'cool'. Other research has found that children as young as 3 years old use brand names as cues to determine whether foods are likely to taste good or be exciting. Almost three-quarters (71%) of respondents to a Cancer Council Victoria survey of 1,500 Australians agree that junk food companies should be restricted from sponsoring children's sporting activities.
Ms Martin said calls for greater investment into children's sport as a result of our Olympic results would be seen as an invitation by junk food brands to increase their sponsorship reach.
"Increasingly we are seeing unhealthy food companies attempting to buy themselves a ‘healthy halo' by associating their brand with junior sport. It is a marketing strategy pure and simple, not an altruistic interest in funding sporting clubs.
"At the moment the door is wide open for these brands to use children as mobile billboards and brand ambassadors, if the government restricted these sponsorship deals it would close the door on unhealthy food and open another to a generation of healthier kids," said Ms Martin.
Mac Pack is a football skills development program for children operated by McDonald's, in partnership with the MCG and a number of well-known AFL players referred to as "Mac Pack ambassadors". The Mac Pack ambassadors provide coaching sessions and tips to junior footballers, while wearing, and proving children with, McDonald's branded clothing. McDonald's brand marketing also surrounds training sessions, i.e. through banners and other promotional activities.
McDonalds sponsors junior basketball, involving pre-school and primary school aged children. The Hooptime tournament competition reached more than 520 Victorian schools and more than 33,000 children participated.
Milo in2cricket is a fun way for kids to learn how to play cricket. It incorporates all junior development programs in clubs, schools and the community.
The Obesity Policy Coalition is a group of leading public health agencies who are concerned about the escalating levels of overweight and obesity, particularly in children.
The Obesity Policy Coalition partners include Diabetes Australia - Vic, Cancer Council Victoria, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University.