Junk food brands influence parents through kids' sport sponsorship

26 Feb 2020

A new Cancer Council Victoria study has found that when unhealthy food and drink brands sponsor kids’ sport programs parents are more likely to recognise, choose and view these brands in a positive light.

The study, published in Public Health Nutrition, tested over 1,300 Australian parents’ responses to simulated sponsorship of children’s sport by unhealthy food and drink brands in comparison to two pro-health sponsorship options - healthier food branding and healthy eating campaign branding.

The study found that parents exposed to unhealthy food and drink sponsorship in kids’ sport were more than twice as likely to be aware of these brands than parents exposed to non-food brands. They were also almost twice as likely to choose unhealthy products when asked to choose a preferred food brand.

The research also found that they held more positive attitudes towards these unhealthy brands, viewing them as more aligned with the healthy, active image of kids’ sport.

Cancer Council Victoria’s Principal Research Fellow and lead researcher of the study, Associate Professor Helen Dixon said the research proved just how powerful sports sponsorship is in boosting the image and appeal of unhealthy food and drink sponsors’ brands.

“Our study demonstrated that even within healthy, family-oriented junior sports settings parents can be influenced by promotions through sponsorship by unhealthy food and drink companies,” Assoc Prof Dixon said.

“Australians spend a lot of time being active and social through junior sport– with over half of our kids participating in at least one sport outside of school. When unhealthy food and drink brands push their products in these settings it gives junk food brands a misleading ‘healthy halo’.”

Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, says this research shines a light on how the manipulative power of unhealthy food and drink marketing impacts not only children but parents as well.

“At a time when unhealthy foods contribute over a third of the daily energy intake for Australian children it is irresponsible for companies to undermine and exploit families in an environment that promotes active lifestyles.” Ms Martin said.

Assoc Prof Dixon said the good news is the research suggests junior sport sponsorship can also provide a useful vehicle to promote the appeal of healthier brands, encouraging rather than hindering healthy lifestyles.

“Our research found parents considered healthier food and public health sponsor brands to be a better fit for kids’ sport sponsorship. We also found healthier sponsorship tipped parents’ preferences towards healthier food products.

“This suggests pro-health sponsorship options could leverage kids’ sport sponsorship to strengthen their brand, promote their messages and shift parents’ preferences towards healthier brands and products.”

The current marketing codes, developed and administered by the food and advertising industry, only apply to a narrow range of media, meaning a significant amount of marketing to children, including sports sponsorship, is not covered at all.

Given the power and influence of unhealthy food and drink sponsorship in kids’ sport, the OPC is calling on the Australian Government to put an end to these flawed self-regulatory marketing codes particularly when the codes do not restrict unhealthy food and drink companies from sponsoring kids’ sport.

“It’s concerning to think big food and drink are getting a free pass, sneakily pushing their promotion on to parents and children through supporting grassroots sports.” said Ms Martin.

“It’s time for the Government to stop allowing corporations to exploit grassroots sports to promote their unhealthy products.” Ms Martin said.

About the research:
The research, published in Public Health Nutrition journal online involved 1,331 Australian parents of children aged 6 to 9 years recruited from a large national online panel. Parents were shown a short video and promotional flyer for a fictional junior sports program sponsored by an unhealthy food brand, healthier food brand, public health nutrition campaign brand or non-food brand. Following this exposure, parents answered a series of questions assessing their brand awareness, attitudes, image perceptions, program-sponsor fit perceptions, and preference for food sponsors’ products.

About the Obesity Policy Coalition:
The OPC is a partnership between Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Victoria, VicHealth and the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention. The OPC advocates for evidence-based policy and regulatory change to address overweight, obesity and unhealthy diets in Australia.