Should the Olympics allow fast-food sponsors?

Fat chance of Jamie Oliver, or any of the other activists gathered under his anti-obesity banner, preventing McDonald's or Coca-Cola sponsoring the Olympic Games unless they meet particular health standards.

When it comes to the greatest sporting show on earth, money doesn’t just talk – it screams for attention. And the International Olympic Committee is only too willing to give it. In 2012, McDonald’s paid a reported £75m to extend its Olympic sponsorship (which dates back to 1976) until 2020. Coke’s deal, also running until 2020, is thought to be worth £33.7m for each four-year Games cycle.

Unsurprisingly, Melinda May, the IOC’s chief marketing officer, stands alongside McDonald’s and Coke in the face of growing calls for them to be banned from any association with the Olympics.

Moreover, the two companies will not find other advertisers wanting them to be shown the door for fear of setting a precedent. Of around a dozen marketing directors contacted by Campaign, all either declined to comment or did not return calls.

May’s argument is that having Coke and McDonald’s on board sends positive messages. She claims that the efforts by both companies in offering people healthier options and getting children more interested in sport through their marketing is reflective of Olympic brand values.

This view has the broad support of ISBA, whose public affairs director Ian Twinn has challenged health campaigners to suggest alternative ways of how the Olympics could be funded.

Oliver, who announced in May that he was taking his anti-obesity campaign to the Rio Olympics, insists he has no wish to see an outright ban on McDonald’s or Coke. But he wants backing for his efforts to raise £100m for the creation of a Kitemark to be used by food and drinks companies to show they conform to certain nutritional and ethical standards.

The alleged role of fast-food and fizzy drinks manufacturers in fuelling obesity is bound to come under particular scrutiny in Brazil – the majority of the country’s 209.6 million population is said to be overweight, including 30% of children.

The problem spans the social spectrum. Newly middle-class Brazilians want to buy their offspring the snack foods and fizzy drinks denied to them as children. Poorer and less well-educated people have been shown to be more susceptible to the marketing of food with high sugar and salt content. Brazil’s government has responded by ordering schools to buy locally grown and manufactured products.

Three years ago, a consumer protection agency in the state of São Paulo fined McDonald’s $1.6m for targeting children with advertising and toys. However, critics claim economic interests are undermining the regulation of ads aimed at children.

Both McDonald’s and Coke have been trying to deflect the flak. McDonald’s is promoting the success of its efforts to dramatically reduce the salt content of its Happy Meals. Meanwhile, Coke is running national press ads pointing out that 43% of Coca-Cola sold in the UK is sugar-free.

Will all this be enough to satisfy consumers worldwide? Or will the clamour not to allow them near the Olympics soon become too deafening to ignore?


David Atkinson 

Managing partner, Space

"I believe Coke and McDonald’s are creating the right products and investing in grass-roots sport to justify their sponsorship of the Olympics. In fact, the Olympic movement has actually helped both brands to develop a healthier range of products and to run campaigns that show consumers a different side to their business.

"Other brands such as Heineken and Carlsberg continue to be major sponsors of sport along with Coke and McDonald’s. And as long as they continue to show that they are a force for good – and are doing nothing illegal – they should not be forced out of sports sponsorship."


Malcolm Clark 

Co-ordinator, Children’s Food Campaign

"We don’t think McDonald’s or Coca-Cola should be sponsoring the Olympics because of the way children are affected by the halo effect of their advertising. Governments, the media and the public are no longer taken in by the IOC’s spin. Coke is still pushing its full-sugar drinks and it’s not been proved that sugar-free products are bringing long-term benefits.

"It’s also completely false to claim the Olympics would suffer without this sponsorship money. It’s a small amount compared with TV and other media rights. The Olympics might be a little less shiny without it – and IOC delegates might not get to stay in luxury hotels"


Liz Wilson 

Chief operating officer, Karmarama

"Having Coke and McDonald’s sponsoring the Olympics is fine, as long as it is within certain parameters. Nobody should be suggesting that athletes eat fast food every day and there should be no sponsorship of individual athletes. But we all know that Coke and McDonald’s are treats and what’s life without a treat once in a while?

"Once we start demonising brands like these, they are seen as illicit and more desirable. You only have to look at what happened during Prohibition in the 1920s. Making them part of the communication makes them more accountable to all of us."


Ian Wright

Director-general, Food and Drink Federation

"Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are among the world’s most responsible companies. Being involved in the Olympic family and sharing its values allows both sides to benefit from the special value of such relationships.

"You only have to look at Johnnie Walker’s sponsorship of the McLaren Formula One team to see that it has not only been very successful but has also advanced the cause of responsible drinking.

"You also have to remember that the source of the controversy is invariably Western and metropolitan. Asian and Latin American countries have no problem with companies that behave responsibly"

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