Junk food giants McDonald’s and Coca-Cola could find themselves left at the starting blocks after the London Assembly voted to call for a ban on Olympic sponsors that produce high calorie food and beverages.
Just over a month before London hosts the 2012 Olympics, the powerful elected body passed a motion urging the International Olympic Committee to adopt strict sponsorship criteria in a bid to outlaw advertising of products linked to child obesity.
The political statement comes on the back of vociferous protests from health organizations that the celebration of athletic excellence is not the place to be tempting youngsters with Big Macs.
“London won the right to host the 2012 Games with the promise to deliver a legacy of more active, healthier children across the world,” the Green Party’s Jenny Jones, who proposed the motion, told the assembly. “Yet the same International Olympic Committee that awarded the games to London persists in maintaining sponsorship deals with the purveyors of high calorie junk that contributes to the threat of an obesity epidemic.”
One of the most vocal critics of the IOC has been the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which feels that the presence of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, both of which have exclusive rights to sell food and non-alcoholic beverages respectively, “sends out the wrong message” to children.
Big Macs, fries and milkshakes will form part of McDonald’s exclusively branded menu at its four restaurants in the Olympic Park and Athletes’ Village, but the chair of AoMRCs fears that adverts for the sponsors will pose the biggest danger to kids’ health.
University College London’s Terence Stephenson says that companies wouldn’t spend huge amounts of money on advertising and sponsorship if it didn’t increase their sales.
“And we know, particularly when it comes to junk food advertising aimed at children, it does have an affect on the type of food they want to eat,” he says.
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But despite the criticism of their presence, without companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, the Olympics would be under serious financial threat, a fact that organizers are happy to admit. Cash generated by commercial partnerships accounts for more than 40% of Olympic revenues, and the companies under fire have been two of the biggest contributors for many years.
Coca-Cola has sponsored every Olympic Games since 1928, making it the longest continuous partner of the Olympic Movement, while McDonald’s has been ever-present since the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Involvement of this level comes at a hefty price. The Olympic Partner (TOP) sponsors likely pay about $100 million for a four-year commitment, and sponsors typically spend three to four times the sponsorship amount to plan and execute the associated marketing campaigns.
Additional advertising spending aside, revenue from TOP between 2005 and 2008 came to around $866 million according to the IOC, underlining just how vital the program is to the process.
As for the companies themselves, Coca-Cola points out that more than 75% of the drinks it expects to sell at the Olympics and Paralympics will be water, juice or sugar-free drinks, while McDonald’s also points to its healthier options — porridge, bagels and salads — and says that complex health issues like obesity cannot be solved by companies alone.
“Ultimately it’s up to individuals to make the right food, drink, and activity choices for themselves,” a McDonald’s spokesperson told TIME Moneyland.
Currently a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, and British kids are fast catching up, with an estimated 31.1% falling into the same category.
The issue of Olympic sponsorship is by no means a new one, nor is it likely to disappear in the near future. The IOC will no doubt take the London Assembly’s move into consideration, but given the sheer sums of money involved, it seems unlikely to turn its back on the golden goose. Or arches.