Experts: Athletes 'shouldn't promote fast food'

SUPER SIZED: A scene from the KFC Super Bucket or Super Team Bucket advert featuring Nasi Manu, TJ Perenara, Ryan Crotty ...
Matt M. Duncan

SUPER SIZED: A scene from the KFC Super Bucket or Super Team Bucket advert featuring Nasi Manu, TJ Perenara, Ryan Crotty and Charles Piutau.

Can fast food chains really promote healthy, active lifestyles using professional athletes? 

The television commercial pretends five New Zealand Super Rugby players are making an advertisement for "Super KFC TV".

A happy and healthy family of four pick-up a $35 Super Rugby Bucket from a KFC drive through, but the players decide something is missing and one of the players kicks a ball through an open sunroof. It's 30 seconds of light humour, plenty of KFC logos, plus jerseys from all five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises.

It was broadcast before 7pm last Wednesday during a Cricket World Cup quarterfinal, a time when many families were likely to be watching the match. It could have been tagged KFC, rugby, cricket, Super, fast food, health, humour, toys and so on.

Health and nutrition experts say this is exactly wrong. Fit, healthy athletes shouldn't be promoting fast food, least of all to children, teens and young adults. But it's happening everywhere. KFC - as Kentucky Fried Chicken is now called - sponsors Super Rugby and the Cricket World Cup; Pepsi sponsors cricket; Coke sponsors Super Rugby, McDonald's sponsors NZ football and XFactorNZ, which doesn't feature athletes but still creates role models.

Practitioners draw differences between advertising, sponsorships, brand and marketing, but to consumers they are largely indistinguishable. Sponsorship covers it well enough.

So how do these sponsorship deals work? McDonald's was asked how it came to sponsor XFactorNZ and the emailed response from Simon Kenny head of communications for the restaurant company, was all about "brand integration" and "relevance to customers". He also declined to identify the cost of sponsoring XFactorNZ for commercial reasons, but there is data available on sport sponsorships.

According to a 2013 study called Sponsorship market analysis in Australia & New Zealand by an English consultancy named IMR, the combined sport sponsorship spend in the two countries, based on 1662 major deals, was US$734 million (NZ$1 billion). Smaller deals were not analysed, but they were estimated to bring in a further US$146m.

The New Zealand take was estimated to be US$145m from 257 analysed deals and unanalysed smaller deals. The All Blacks naturally haul in the most - 63 per cent of all incoming money. Adidas paid about US$25m a year and insurance company AIG paid about US$12.4m a year to be associated with the All Blacks, the IMR report said.

A table on Australian rugby league sponsorships showed Telstra paid the NRL US$21m annually for the naming rights to the entire premiership, according to IMR. Coke paid the NRL US$1m a year to sponsor the federation, Nike paid the Brisbane Broncos US$1m a year to be their premier sponsor and Chinese telecom and tech company Huawei paid the Canberra Raiders US$880,000 a year to be a sponsor.

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The dollars can be large and some flows to athletes appearing in commercials. Under the collective agreement between the NZ Rugby Union and the Rugby Players Collective, players own themselves and their images, and the main union, Super franchises and provincial unions own their own logos, jerseys and other intellectual property, explains players' association executive director Rob Nichol.

Under the collective, players can only appear in their official jerseys in TV commercials, for example, in groups of three or more. The players get appearance fees on half day or full-day basis. Nichol says the Super KFC TV advert probably took about four hours and gained the players $250 each.

KFC also paid a much larger sum into the association's "player pool", which is used to pay wages, insurance, benevolent and welfare funds and so forth. (Players can appear by themselves in TV commercials and the like, but generally not in official jerseys or with logos. Payment is whatever the player can command.)

There's also a provision for conscientious objection. Players can decline to front for commercials. "Clearly with fast food, some players are comfortable with that and others say 'That's not for me'," Nichol says.

Look carefully at the Super KFC TV advert, Nichol says. The players are never pictured with the food, let alone eating it. This compares with KFC sponsorship of Australian cricket. Players are shown eating KFC meals in locker rooms, he says. "We've been very careful with fast food to work through the scenarios so that everybody is comfortable," Nichol says. "KFC has been fantastic to work with," he says.

For it's part, KFC says that it sponsors Super Rugby for the benefit of the game, not its own sales. KFC wants to use its "large network of stores and customers around the country to attract a younger and more diverse audience to the game", Jamie McKaughan, KFC's general manager of operations, said in February when the Super deal was announced.

"KFC have a particularly high reach in the youth market, which the Super Rugby licensees say they are keen to better connect with." There's another goal too . KFC wishes to "promote healthy, active lifestyles", which it does in part by including a free rugby ball with the bucket deal.

Health researchers don't believe that the fast food chains can promote health. For years, study after study has found links between sponsorships, fast food and poor health such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Everybody from the World Health Organisation, to the Dutch government and the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit at Otago University, Wellington campus pretty much agree that "energy-dense and nutrient-poor products" and marketing are the enemy.

For example, sports celebrity endorsements made Australian pre-adolescent boys more likely to choose those energy-dense and nutrient-poor products, concluded an April 2014 report in the peer- reviewed journal Pediatric Obesity. Almost half (47 per cent) of Australian children could recall the sponsors of their favourite elite sporting team, and that they liked to "return the favour to sponsors by buying their products", found a 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, also peer reviewed.

That study also found that most children had received a player of the day or similar voucher from a food or beverage company and about one-third of children reported liking the company more after receiving these rewards.

In New Zealand, the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit has been pumping out research in the field. Last October, Dr Moira Smith and colleagues published a paper in the peer reviewed journal Appetite analysing what happened when 82 Wellington children aged 10-12 took photos of beverages they associated with sport, including at their own netball, rugby and football games.

While water and plain milk featured in the photographs, many included energy, sport and carbonated drinks, fruit juices, and flavoured milks and waters. Smith then analysed these drinks and concluded they "overwhelmingly" did not adhere to New Zealand nutrition guidelines.

A 2013 study led by Mary-Ann Carter and Louise Signals from the Wellington unit suggested how junk food advertising works. This may seem obvious but stick with it. Behaviour modification theory suggests repeatedly linking a product with, for example a sports match, increases the probability of that product being purchased, they wrote in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Public Health.

Sponsorships link brands to excellence and sporting prowess, and suggest purchasing and consuming the brand is a "conduit" to these attributes. "Sporting heroes thus act as role models and vicarious instructors who educate consumers about brands and imply that purchasing them will enable consumers to access desirable and aspirational characteristics," they wrote in the paper called Food, fizzy, and football: promoting unhealthy food and beverages through sport - a New Zealand case study.

Moreover, "the messaging they're sending through marketing is in conflict with recommendations from the Ministry of Health," says Wellington's Moira Smith, author of the photography study.

"These conflicting messages are very strong and powerful. Coming from well known sports people, . . . they are highly influential," she says.

For it's part, "KFC is not pretending that there is any connection between our food and the diets and successes of professional athletes," says company spokesperson Rewa Willis.

In other contexts, professional rugby happily acknowledges players are role models. In January, the Hurricanes highlighted that some of its players would for the sixth year running visit Pacific Islands to combat domestic abuse. Players were "particularly looked up to by young men and boys", explained Hurricanes personal development manager Steve Symonds. . The message was: "Rugby is a hard game and you have to be tough on the field, but . . . there is a time and place to be aggressive and that is not at home with your family."

So what's to be done?

Ban it all, says Smith. Treat energy-dense and nutrient-poor products like tobacco, and forbid all sponsorship. Go further, she says, and create something like the Smokefree system, which replaced tobacco money sponsorship with the exact opposite message and paid for by tobacco taxes.

That would sort out one of the problems with sport sponsorships: the organising bodies, clubs and so forth need money.

"It's a commercial world we live in," says the rugby players association's Nichol.

 - Stuff

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