England, the World Cup and childhood obesity

I hope England wins the World Cup, but whatever happens, children’s health is certainly losing. The entire football “pyramid” in England is riddled with junk food companies.

Football food pyramid jpeg
The English Football Food Pyramid

Through their love of football, children in England are bombarded with marketing for ultra-processed food and drink. It continues through their early years and into adulthood. And it’s not sneaky, ambush marketing. It comes from official football organisations, events, venues, teams, and role models. While sport marketers talk about the successful “reach” of sponsorship, public health promoters focus on the potentially disastrous effects these sponsors can have on children.

But it could all end very soon. The food charity Sustain has told the government what action is needed in sport settings: “Campaigns are currently calling on sports associations to disassociate themselves from junk food brands, but if sports associations will not act, the Government must step in.”

And now a Health Committee in the UK Parliament has formally recommended it is time to end these partnerships:

“The next round of the Government’s childhood obesity plan … should also include a commitment to end sponsorship by brands overwhelmingly associated with high fat, sugar and salt products of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments.”

THIS IS MASSIVE NEWS. Sponsorship of children’s sport by junk food companies is pervasive and predatory. It includes organisations such as the FA and FIFA, competitions such as the Premier league and Carabao Cup, venues such as Wembley, and programmes such as McDonald’s national youth sponsorship.

To keep the momentum and pressure on the government to make these changes you can state your support with Sustain here: https://www.sustainweb.org/poll/sugar/

For the health of children, this English football food pyramid needs to come tumbling down.

Joe Piggin

PS: This problem is not confined to England either. It’s global. I plan to track other countries soon. See this recent research in the USA about the pervasiveness of junk food advertising in USA sport.

McDonald’s sponsorship of children’s sport

I, and others, have written about how problematic it is that companies which sell ultra-processed food also heavily target young people in their advertising. Even worse is when companies make children do the advertising themselves. See below this from Nottingham in the UK, March 2018: (photo credit: David O’B)


Many sport organisations have safeguarding policies, but this does not seem to extend to protecting children from exploitation by companies selling all manner of ultra-processed food.

McDonald’s branding of NZ youth football

This promotional video advertises the involvement of McDonald’s in New Zealand Youth football. It must be difficult to manage a football club, and so any help would be appealing, but there are serious health and ethical issues with this commercial relationship. (I’ve discussed this before in the UK setting.)

Both the imagery and the “script” from the video convey a wonderful charitable act by McDonald’s. Some extracts from the video include …

McDonald’s spokesman: “Bibs and cones and a football is all you need and that’s really the resources the club wanted and so that’s where we put a lot of our effort.”

Football coach: “Without that support it would be a lot more difficult … trickier to coach the kids and help them develop.”

Young football player: “The gear that McDonald’s supplies is awesome because if you didn’t have it you couldn’t play so it’s great”

Young players (in unison): “It’s a beautiful game … I’m loving it!”

My questions which flow from this sponsorship deal …

Q. 1: Does this relationship conflict with the World Health Organisation’s recommendation (2016) to “Require settings such as schools, child-care settings, children’s sports facilities and events to create healthy food environments”? The World Health Organisation is very concerned about this:

“Nutrition and food literacy and knowledge will be undermined if there are conflicting messages in the settings where children gather. Schools, child-care and sports facilities should support efforts to improve children’s nutrition by making the healthy choice the easy choice and not providing or selling unhealthy foods and beverages” (WHO, 2016).

“Settings where children and adolescents gather (such as schools and sports facilities or events) and the screen-based offerings they watch or participate in, should be free of marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. The Commission notes with concern the failure of Member States to give significant attention to Resolution WHA 63.14 endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 20103 and requests that they address this issue. Parents and caregivers are increasingly the target of marketing for foods and beverages high in fats and sugar, aimed at their children …” (WHO, 2016).

Q. 2: Why was it necessary to brand the footballs and the sportswear?

Q. 3: Both the coach and the player suggest it would be difficult or impossible without the help of McDonald’s. How accurate are these claims?

Joe Piggin

McDonald’s sponsorship of UK football

The Football Associations of the United Kingdom need to change their relationship with McDonald’s.

One strand of the McDonald’s sponsorship agreement with the UK’s Football Associations appears to be “Dress the kids in McDonald’s clothing whenever possible.”

Children wearing McDonald’s uniforms. Also, title image. Source: http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk

We are all familiar with the corporate logic of “get them when they’re young” in order to build brand loyalty. But the McDonald’s strategy of adorning young football players in McDonald’s branded clothing is surely an unacceptable practice.

A football celebrity with children in McDonald’s uniforms. Source: http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk

McDonald’s calls itself a “community partner” in this extravaganza – anything to distance itself from the idea that there is a profit motive behind this apparently benevolent act.

Rapp and Jespersen (2015) would argue this practice is entangled marketing: “For companies to achieve long-term relationships with customers, they must go far beyond setting engagement as the goal. … Once entangled, a pair of particles remain inextricably connected. They never let go of one another, no matter their distance apart.” McDonald’s accomplish this by giving hundreds of thousands of young people “their first kit”. Occasionally they have celebrity role models tell groups of young players what a special day it is when they receive their first kit. For example, see this video which celebrates 250,000 McDonald’s kits being distributed to children around the UK. “McDonald’s ambassadors” hand over “brand new kit” to children in the video.

Football celebrity distributing McDonald’s branded football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

One football administrator enthusiastically recounted that “McDonald’s have provided football kit now … to over 10,000 teams in the last 2 years in Wales.”

Football celebrity distributing McDonald’s branded football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

But these shirts are not “donations” at all. They are explicitly and specifically branded with the McDonald’s arches. The children become miniature Trojan horses, and their target is the other players around them. The difference is that the “invaders” are displayed loud and clear. The McDonald’s brand is there for all the other children to see throughout their football sessions. The brand exposure, while not measured on the McDonald’s web page, must be enormous. By allowing (and perhaps requiring!) these football shirts to be worn the Football Associations are subtly condoning and promoting McDonald’s as a normal and positive element of the sports arena.

Through the McDonald’s FA Charter Standard kit scheme, young children are exposed to McDonald’s branding. Clubs that live up to the FA’s safeguarding policy are rewarded with free kits which expose children to the McDonald’s. Moreover, with the FA’s blessing, McDonald’s is bestowed legitimacy and authority on safeguarding children and harm minimisation. The irony is troubling.  When a company (such as McDonald’s) is banned from advertising their products to children on tv, this should be sufficient evidence to consider them as unfit to sponsor a supposedly health-enhancing sport. 

Policy Issues

The UK government’s current approach to legislation on youth sport sponsorship is clearly very lax. The Government’s current “Sporting Future” policy is full of praise for “voluntary agreements”:

“Sponsorship is an area where a number of sports, and individual clubs, have adopted a responsible approach, for example around sponsorship by companies marketing alcohol or high fat sugar and salt (HFSS) foods. We will continue to discuss with sports the scope for voluntary agreements in this area. The government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy, due to be published in early 2016, is also likely to contain measures relating to HFSS foods.”

While there is a UK law banning junk food advertising targeted at children, the loophole whereby sports organisations can receive funding from HFSS companies to promote their organisations to children should be closed. If it is not legislated against, or if national governing bodies do not end these practices themselves, they will be increasingly implicated in the poor health of the nation.

Jill McDonald, the McDonald’s chief executive wrote that “Ten years ago, we took the decision to invest the majority of our UK sponsorship funds into football and crucially into the grassroots of the game.” She also wrote that she is “immensely proud of what our partnerships with each of the Football Associations has achieved”, However, I am concerned about what is not measured and displayed on the website. These questions should surely form any future evaluation of McDonald’s partnerships with youth sport.

1. Exactly why did McDonald’s choose to brand the shirts they “donated”?
2. How many cumulative minutes have children been exposed to McDonald’s branding at training sessions?
3. How were ideas about health and nutrition dealt with at these sessions?

McDonald’s brand football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

The UK Government will soon publish its new Obesity Policy. I suspect the government will not legislate against food companies invading childhood sport spaces with their branding. However, with the disastrous effects of childhood obesity, either McDonald’s or the various Football Associations need to end this insidious practice. These branded shirts are advertising. It is time to remove them from circulation.

Joe Piggin