Harmless logo or plug for obesity?
Posted on Monday, July 20, 2020
By Jessica Sinclair
A child runs off the soccer pitch, panting with exertion. Her coach hands her a Gatorade from the branded cooler on the sidelines. Where many notice only innocent hydration, public health expert Dr. Monique Potvin Kent sees junk food marketing, plain and simple.
The Associate Professor at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health (SEPH) runs the OUTLIVE Lab, which studies food and nutrition policy for obesity prevention. Her team received one of this year’s CIHR project grants to look into what happens to children’s eating and attitudes when their sports team is sponsored by a food and beverage company.
“Most adults will claim they’re not influenced by marketing,” says Dr. Potvin Kent. “That’s completely false, and children are even more vulnerable to it.”
Before the age of six, children can’t always tell whether they are watching a television program or a commercial break. Teens absorb marketing into their identities and often spend their meagre discretionary income on junk foods. When advertising comes in the form of sponsorship, its power is subtle but measurable. That quantifying task is what Dr. Potvin Kent has taken on.
An ingenious element of the experimental design uses an existing dichotomy between Quebec and Ontario legislative environments. Marketing that appeals to children has been outlawed in Quebec for decades, whereas it is ubiquitous in Ontario. The differences in those laws provides a natural experiment where food-sponsored teams in Quebec and Ontario can be compared. Will children in Quebec be less interested in fast food, or does the salty, deep-fried taste of fries speak for itself?
The OUTLIVE team has already performed pilot studies to get their bearings on what a full study might find. Having identified 67 sports clubs for the five most popular sports among children—hockey, soccer, baseball, swimming and basketball—they counted a total of 312 sponsors. Of the companies involved, 16% were food related.
The current study will go further, pinning down the extent to which sports clubs rely financially on those sponsorships. Whether it’s cash, uniforms, after-practice snacks or coupons, the exact nature and quantity of compensation they find will be highly relevant to policy. Efforts to ban junk food advertising to children in Canada have historically excluded sports sponsorships for fear that without them, price hikes will exclude low-income kids from sport.
“We want to find out, is that actually a legitimate fear?” says Dr. Potvin Kent. “You’re advertising an unhealthy product to your kids non-stop—is that a good trade-off?”
The marketing effects go beyond any mere brand recognition provided by toddlers running around with company logos emblazoned on the chest of their uniforms. Something about sports sponsorship creates a unique sense of allegiance toward a business. Research from the University of Waterloo shows that children see the sponsoring company as a benevolent force in their lives, and they feel an obligation to show reciprocity years later.
“One participant said, ‘Tim Hortons supported me when I was a kid, so I’m going to support them when I want to get food,” says Pauzé. “That’s exactly what he said, and I think that epitomizes what we’re worried about.
“It’s probably what motivates companies to sponsor children’s sports.”