As fans cheer the World Cup 2014, public health officials question the placement of junk food marketing at such major sporting events, as governments grapple with a rising epidemic of obesity and related illnesses.
In the UK alone, sales of unhealthy food and beverages tied to the televised games will reach $459 million, according to consumer research firm Webloyalty. Four years ago, during the first week of tournament play in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, sales of chips and chocolate rose by 10 percent and 37 percent, respectively, compared to the same week the previous year, when there was no tournament. Likewise, other major televised sporting events drive sales of unhealthy foods with sales of sugary drinks increasing by 10 percent compared to the previous year.
Thiago Hérick de Sá, a nutritionist at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, says junk food marketers “represent a direct attack" on global efforts to stabilize the obesity epidemic through improvements in nutritional choices. Such marketing counters the effort by Latin American governments in particular to fight obesity, he wrote in a letter published in The Lancet.
"The basic aim of any company is to sell their products or services and to profit," de Sá told Medical News Today. "The sponsorship of major sporting events [by fast-food and sugary drink companies] is part of the company's marketing strategy to achieve that aim, to encourage people, including children, to consume more of their products."
For this year’s tournament, FIFA has partnered with Coca-Cola, and gotten sponsorship from McDonald’s and Budweiser, among other makers of unhealthy foods and beverages, de Sá wrote in the letter published in The Lancet. For decades, these marketers have sought to associate unhealthy products with world-class athleticism, a message counter to the harsh biological realities of human life. An original, Coca-Cola was the first such company to engage in sports-related marketing, sponsoring the 1928 Olympics.
Susan Swithers, a professor in the Department of Health and Sciences at Purdue University, says children may be particularly affected by sports-related junk food marketing during major sporting events. "They see these messages everywhere and we know that children are more vulnerable to advertising messages than adults,” she told Medical News Today. “And for many kids, athletes are role models, so unhealthy foods get a boost in the eyes of children through their connection with events like the Olympics.”
Critics of sports-related junk food marketing say the association between such products and health couldn’t be more of a canard.