N° 92 | September 2014

Unhealthy food and beverage marketing during sport

Obesity has become one of the most pressing public health issues of the modern era. While at the most basic level obesity is the result of a simple ‘energy in – energy out’ equation, research shows that the behaviours that surround this equation are clearly infl uenced by the food environments. This has led researchers to look closely at mapping and monitoring the range of tactics that are used by industry to stimulate the consumption of unhealthy food products, as well as the policy responses that are needed to effectively tackle these food environments1.

Unhealthy food marketing and sport

One specific form of marketing that has received attention is the promotion and alignment of unhealthy foods and beverages during sporting matches. Sport has been identified as a particularly influential marketing channel as it allows companies to align their products with activities that are perceived as healthy and that have a positive impact on communities. However, public health experts have expressed concern about the alignments of advertising for unhealthy food products and sport2, with this form of marketing infl uencing children’s perceptions and families purchasing habits of unhealthy foods3. A key concern is children’s repeat exposure to unhealthy brands during sports4 with studies showing that children have implicit recall of the unhealthy brands associated with sport5.

The extent of unhealthy food and beverage marketing in sport

A number of researchers have attempted to quantify the amount of time spent advertising unhealthy foods and beverages during sporting matches. These studies have sought to examine the amount of advertising embedded within sporting matches (for example via sponsorship, jumper logos, boarding around the ground, or in game announcements) and formal commercial break advertising. In Australia these studies have focused on a number of nationally significant sports – including the Australian Football League, national Cricket series, and the National Rugby League. This research has shown a number of significant findings about the placement of advertising for unhealthy food or “junk food” products during sporting broadcasts. Sherriff and colleagues (2010), found that advertising for unhealthy food and alcohol products was visible during 44% and 74% of game footage for three televised professional cricket events6. A similar study identifi ed an average of 17 episodes and 2.74 minutes of unhealthy food and beverage marketing per match during a national sporting series7. Finally, a study conducted in the Australian state of Victoria found that television viewers in this state were exposed to a higher volume of junk food and alcohol advertising during television sports broadcasts than during other television programming, with nearly half (45.7%) of all junk food advertisements shown during sporting matches from July 2010 - January 20118. This study also found that viewers had signifi cantly more time exposure to alcohol, junk food and sugary drink products through ingame advertising than in-break advertising. Finally, in a study of sports websites in New Zealand, Carter and colleagues [2013] found that both healthy and unhealthy brands sponsored sport.

Implications for Public Health

There are a number of implications for health promotion and public health interventions. Firstly will be the requirements for policy initiatives which aim to redress the balance between the promotion of healthy and unhealthy products during sport. This may include regulatory efforts, including initiatives which seek to limit the amount of exposure during sporting activities that may be highly viewed by children. Incentives are also required to encourage local and national level sporting codes to move towards relationships with products that are health promoting and that provide opportunities for a new range of messages about healthy food consumption and sport.

  1. Vandevijvere, S. and Swinburn, B. Towards global benchmarking of food environments and policies to reduce obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases: design and methods for nation-wide surveys BMJ Open 2014;4:e005339 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005339.
  2. Sacks G. and Mialon, D. (2014) A World Cup of Opportunities for Junk Food Companies. The Conversation. 9th July.
  3. Kelly B: Food and beverage company sponsorship of children’s sport: publicity or philanthropy? Discipline of Public Health, Sydney Medical School. Sydney: The University of Sydney; 2012.
  4. Carter MA, Signal L, Edwards R, Hoek J, Maher A. Food, fi zzy, and football: promoting unhealthy food and beverages through sport – a New Zealand case study. BMC Public Health. 2013 Feb 11;13:126. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-126.
  5. Pettigrew S, Rosenberg M, Ferguson R, Houghton S, Wood L. Game on: do children absorb sports sponsorship messages? Public Health Nutrition. 2013 Dec;16(12):2197-204. doi: 10.1017/S1368980012005435. Epub 2013 Jan 11.
  6. Sherriff J, Griffi ths D, Daube M: Cricket: notching up runs for food and alcohol companies? Aust N Z J Public Health 2010, 34(1):19-23.
  7. Lindsay, S. Thomas, S. Lewis, S. Westberg, K. Moodie, R. Jones, S. (2014) Eat, drink and gamble: marketing messages about ‘risky’ products in an Australian major sporting series BMC Public Health 2013, 13:719.
  8. VicHealth (2014) Alcohol and junk food advertising and promotion through sport. March 2014. Publication number: P-A-129.
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