Olympic fever is starting up again and brings with it a deluge of soda and fast food ads. The unholy alliance with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola was criticized by health professionals before the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“At an event that celebrates athletic achievement, I don’t think we need to promote high-calorie, high-fat foods that are not good for the health of the human body,” says Terence Stephenson, a practicing pediatrician and chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents 200,000 U.K. health professionals… “If the Olympics can’t continue in its present form without extracting money from companies that sell unhealthy products, then it has become too bloated and needs to look for a different business model.”
Despite this call from the medical community, McDonald’s was soon touting their endorsement deal with gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas. She joins a long line of athletes who shill for the Golden Arches including Lebron James and Kobe Bryant.
Lebron James makes over $19 million per year playing basketball for the Miami Heat. Not surprisingly, this salary is peanuts compared his endorsement earnings, which in 2012 topped $42 million. Although perhaps peanuts is the wrong word to use when discussing James outside earnings, which to my knowledge have not involved foods anywhere near as healthy as peanuts. Instead, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, James is King of Junk Food, earning millions of dollars endorsing Sprite (a.k.a. sugar water), Powerade (a.k.a. glorified sugar water) and McDonald’s (a.k.a. the place you wash down fries and burgers with sugar water). Kobe Bryant (professional basketball player) earned an estimated $12 million per year from his endorsement contract with McDonald’s alone.
Why would McDonald’s pay such big bucks for an athlete’s endorsement? Because it works.
Food marketers recognize that 13-year-olds like my son are strongly influenced by their idols. They know that linking popular athletes with their products will create positive psychological associations. These associations often work at an unconscious level. My son would probably never admit that he thinks Powerade is cool because Lebron drinks it. He might not even recognize how his attitudes towards that product have been influenced by Lebron’s endorsement. But you can bet that the advertising has worked his magic on him, and hundreds of thousands of other 13-year-olds.
Researchers point out additional problems with athlete endorsements in food marketing.
One study also revealed that parents perceive food products as healthier when they are endorsed by a professional athlete and are more likely to purchase those products.
Tobacco companies had along history of using athletes to promote products with significant health risks. Although tobacco certainly differs from food products in many ways, similarities have been drawn between the marketing practices of the tobacco industry and the food industry, and the use of athlete endorsements appears to be another parallel.
With all the research showing the harmful effects food marketing has on children, I’ve often wondered why more parents don’t speak out against it. This study on the long-term effects of marketing to children provides some insight.
In an unprecedented new study, researchers find the trusted mascots of youth — think Ronald McDonald, Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam — keep whispering in people’s ears long after they’ve grown up, leading them to make more nutritious judgments of ambiguously healthy food… For brands, it means investments in mascots that resonate with children could pay off for generations. For parents, it creates an imperative to encourage critical thinking about advertising, lest early childhood biases stalk their kids into adulthood.
McDonald’s was primed to link their brand with positive feelings for Olympic athletes in another generation of youth using a #CheersToSochi social media campaign. They promoted the campaign with a video geared to children explaining how it works.
Fans can visit www.cheerstosochi.com or tweet using the hashtag #CheersToSochi to send messages of good luck and inspiration directly to their favorite athletes and teams. The messages will be on display in the Athletes’ Village in Sochi, where athletes will be able to view them and print the messages on ribbons to wear around their wrists. Some athletes may tweet their appreciation back to fans.
In a surprising twist, the hashtag has been hijacked by activists speaking out against the Olympic sponsors in light of the Russians adopting a discriminatory anti-gay law.
In the days since, those opposing McDonald’s involvement in the Sochi games have taken that #CheersToSochi hashtag and used it to tag Tweets expressing disappointment and anger at McD’s. A search for the #CheersToSochi tag turns up a massive (and growing) number of protest Tweets, directed not just at McDonald’s, but also at other Olympics sponsors like Coca-Cola and Dow. “Social media campaigns are particularly perilous, given that they are far more a dialogue than a monologue, as McDonald’s found out,” writes HuffPo’s Scott Wooledge about the backlash.
A stand for human rights blunts a campaign to have children link McDonald’s with their favorite athletes? I’m lovin’ it!