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Should McDonald’s be sponsoring the Olympics?

Fast Food: suitable for Olympic sponsorship?
Fast Food: suitable for Olympic sponsorship?

There is an interesting debate in the media at the moment following the announcement that McDonald’s is to open its biggest restaurant at the Olympic Park.

Writing in the Daily Mail on Saturday, Des Kelly questioned the decision to allow McDonald’s to be an Olympic sponsor because fast foods promote obesity.

Then in The Times today, Matthew Syed defended the decision to have McDonald’s as an Olympic sponsor. The article is behind a paywall, but this quote sums up Matthew’s argument:

“It is the sheer paternalism that really grates. The very assumption that the situating of McDonald’s in a glorified sporting venue will cause or accelerate an obesity epidemic is facile… The reality is that people eat McDonald’s because they want to. Eating too much of anything is not particularly healthy, but you will not prevent obesity by micromanaging people’s behaviour from above, nor by issuing bans or edicts on certain types of foods, let alone endorsement deals.”

I happen to think Matthew is one of the most insightful columnists working in the national press.

But this time, I think he has got it wrong.

Our 2009 Policy Report concluded there is a “high level of confidence” that restricting the marketing of unhealthy products to children will have an impact on what they eat and drink.

This is why we recommend restricting marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks – which includes sports sponsorship – to children.

And this judgement and recommendation is based on the results of a systematic literature review, whereas Matthew’s view that sports sponsorship will not make a difference to obesity levels seems to be based on his own judgement.

We are not suggesting restricting the marketing of unhealthy products to children would on its own be enough to stop the obesity epidemic that has seen the UK become the most overweight country in Europe.

The scale of the challenge we face means that no one single thing will make the difference. That is why we need to make lots of changes across society to make it easier for people to make the kind of choices that can help reduce their risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

To address Matthew’s point about paternalism, no one is suggesting we act in a paternalistic way towards adults. This is why our Policy Report recommendation focuses on the marketing of unhealthy products to children and not on marketing generally.

But while lots of adults will watch the Olympics (me included), it will also be watched by lots of children. And with sports sponsorship, it is not usually possible to promote a product to adults without also promoting it to children.

And when it comes to children, we do not think there is anything wrong with being paternalistic. They are less able to critically appraise marketing than adults and so should be protected from marketing of products that have a negative effect on health.

Matthew also suggests it is wrong to pick and choose which companies are appropriate sponsors of the Olympics because other sponsors have been involved in controversy in their various fields.

But the difference is that when it comes to public health, the Olympics has the potential to be a real force for good. Having played table tennis for Great Britain at the Barcelona and Sydney Olympics, Matthew will be more aware than most of how the Games can showcase sports that are not usually given prominent national newspaper coverage.

By focusing on different sports and providing positive role models, the Olympics can encourage young people to take part in activities they may not have previously considered.

But as with the sponsorship of last year’s World Cup by McDonald’s, Budweiser and Coca-Cola, the decision to have McDonald’s Coca-Cola and Cadbury as corporate partners means it will also encourage them to consume energy dense foods and sugary drinks.

Some years ago, under the headline “A lasting health legacy”, the Government told us: “The 2012 London Olympic bid has created a unique and exciting opportunity to strengthen the existing public health agenda“.

And in February this year, Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport and the Olympics, referred to a “long-term Olympic legacy of more children doing competitive sport which we believe will help tackle childhood obesity”.

But there is a chance that any positive health impact of staging the Olympics in London will be mitigated by the choice of sponsors.

This is why World Cancer Research Fund will continue to make the case that companies that sell unhealthy foods and drinks are not appropriate corporate partners for events where children make up a significant proportion of the audience.