Analysis: Is Olympics sponsorship all pain for little gain?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The Games got underway last Friday in Brazil with food & drink brand sponsorship coming under the spotlight. ©iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
The Games got underway last Friday in Brazil with food & drink brand sponsorship coming under the spotlight. ©iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Related tags: Junk food marketing, Olympic games

Performance enhancing drugs have been the media focus in the run-up to the Olympics in Rio. But as the Games got underway last Friday in Brazil it was food and drink brands that were in the spotlight as campaigners and industry engaged in a heated spat about sponsorship.

The UK-based Children’s Food Campaign published a double-headed attack on the major sponsors of the sporting event as well as attempts by industry group the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) to justify the association.

“We know first hand from London 2012 what a carnival of junk food marketing the Olympics are,”​ said the Campaign’s coordinator Malcolm Clark. “And we are seeing it again this time.”

As reported by FoodNavigator​, Clark hit out at Coca-Cola, Mars brand M&M’s and McDonald’s, but most of his ire was directed at Kellogg’s. “Almost all Kellogg’s Games-related marketing currently [promotes] high sugar, less healthy products,”​ he explained.

Sponsorship spat: round 2

children kids school nutrition diet health iStock.com shironosov
"Sport and chocolate don’t mix,” the National Obesity Forum chairman Tam Fry said. “I am most concerned at the message this gives to the young and the impressionable.” ©iStock/shironosov

It then got personal. Clark latched on to a magazine article last week​ in which FDF director general Ian Wright appeared to claim that junk food marketing, and, specifically that associated with the Olympics, is a purely “Western and metropolitan”​ concern, and that “Asian and Latin American countries have no problem” ​with it. 

Wright stood by his comments, then fanned the flames with a follow-up comment: “[] restricting sports sponsorship from food and drink companies [] would result in less physical activity, not more.”

Criticism of major sporting events by big food and drink brands is nothing new – organisers of 2012’s London Olympics came under fire for having Coca-Cola and McDonald’s as key sponsors. Concerns were also raised about Kraft-owned Cadbury’s high profile involvement.

“[] sport and chocolate don’t mix,”​ the National Obesity Forum chairman Tam Fry told FoodNavigator at the time​. “I am most concerned at the message this gives to the young and the impressionable.”

Rings of fire

coca cola bottle top Copyright -  jbk_photography
Coca-Cola, Mars brand M&M’s and McDonald’s are the main sponsors of this year's Olympic Games. ©iStock/jbk_photography

This time around, campaigners grabbed headlines by branding the Rio Olympics the “carnival of junk food marketing”.​ Industry will have undoubtedly been prepped to rebut any concerns but given the recurring (and constant) flak not to mention the bad publicity, the question begs: Is it really worth jumping into the rings of fire?

Perhaps not. In a survey of 1,065 UK adults, published by digital marketing agency Greenlight last week, 18% said they wouldn’t even notice if a brand was to sponsor the Olympic Games.

Looking back on London 2012, there was better news for food and drink brands: Coca-Cola and McDonald’s hit recognition scores of 42% and 38% respectively. By comparison, fellow worldwide sponsor P&G scored 11%, whilst not one of those quizzed remembered Acer’s involvement.

All four forked out $100m (€90.2m) each as ‘worldwide’ sponsors of the 2012 Games in London, according to an analysis by the Guardian​ newspaper​. Cadbury paid $31m (€28m) to be a ‘supporter’. Money well spent if you are a food and drink brand, then?

But hang on. With the recent sponsorship spat in mind, here’s the kicker in Greenlight’s research: almost half (47%) the respondents said that sponsoring the Olympics and Paralympics wouldn’t impact their perception of the brand. Food for thought, if nothing else.

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