READINGS:Pardun texbook, 229-245Reading responses should be 2-3 pages long,
double spaced, with normal font size and margins. In your response, using the
readings that were assigned for that week, please answer the following
questions:

What is the topic that the
week’s readings dealt with?

How do the authors approach the
topic? I.e., what are the main arguments being presented, either for or against
the issue at hand? How do any additional readings, if applicable, add to this
debate?

Do you find one perspective
more compelling? Why? Who do you align with?

Reflect upon the quality of the
arguments made – not just whether you agree with their conclusions

Feel free to add in additional
information or research that you feel is relevant to the week’s topic, if
appropriate.

Make sure to cite
the Pardun chapters you are responding to, in addition to any outside
information you bring into your paper.14
Copyright 2013. Wiley-Blackwell.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or applicable copyright law.
Advertising and
Sporting Events
I’m tired of hearing about
money, money, money, money,
money. I just want to play the
game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.
Shaquille O’Neal
Sports are more than events. The idea of “sport” permeates our everyday lives.
Whether or not we consider ourselves athletic, it is clear that our society celebrates the sporting metaphor. When the pressure of work or school becomes
overwhelming, our friends tell us to hang in there or get “back in the game.”
Many professional fields have adopted “coach” (as in “life coach”) as a way to
keep us competitive. Even the Bible talks sports! (e.g., “I have finished the race,”
2 Timothy 4:7). Considering the prevalence of sporting references in our everyday lives, it should come as no surprise that sporting events and advertising
would be closely tied together. Advertisers want to put themselves into environments that make sense to a mass audience. Sporting events fit this bill nicely.
But, just as with most (if not all) aspects of advertising, the pairing of advertising
and sports is loaded with all sorts of potential controversies.
The first Super Bowl game was played in 1967. The 1960s is known by most
advertising historians as the golden age for advertising. Ad budgets exploded,
Advertising and Society: An Introduction, Second Edition. Edited by Carol J. Pardun.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Erin Whiteside and Marie Hardin
advertising executives were regaled as creative geniuses (think Mad Men), consumers had a seemingly insatiable appetite for gadgets (all of which needed
creative advertising to explain the need to consumers), and the mass media were
booming and on the hunt for advertisers.
Is it any surprise that the Super Bowl began in this environment? At the time
of the first Super Bowl, there were only three major networks available, so there
was little risk with airing the first Super Bowl game. Americans loved football
and they loved television. The first game garnered an average rating of only 18.5
(which meant that close to 18.5 percent of television households were watching
at least some of the game). In the 1960s, that was not spectacular. (To compare,
I Love Lucy consistently garnered a rating of over 50 during its heyday.) However,
it didn’t take long for the Super Bowl to transform into a ratings bonanza. Within
a few years the mass audience and football came together and the ratings skyrocketed into the 40s where they’ve stayed ever since. Very few opportunities
exist for such a mass television audience today. For example, The Big Bang
Theory, CBS’s top-rated comedy, has a rating that typically hits around 9.5. It’s
no wonder, then, that advertisers have maintained such a keen interest in the
Super Bowl.
But what about other sporting events? Primetime viewing of the London 2012
Summer Olympics averaged 31 million US viewers for an average rating of about
21. The 2012 Final Four basketball game scored a rating of about 12.1. While not
as large as the Super Bowl, both of these sporting events are considered rating
hits for their respective networks. Clearly, sporting events draw an audience.
And advertisers are looking for an audience. So capitalizing on the pairing of
sports and advertising seems a perfect match.
Except not everyone can be an elite athlete like those we see on TV. In fact,
just about everyone will fall short of the athletic ideal we see on television. We
buy Air Jordans because we think they just might help us jump a wee bit higher.
If we love basketball, we love Michael Jordan (okay, I love Michael Jordan; you
might love Kobe Bryant). It’s that simple. Most likely we don’t spend a lot of
time thinking about his calorie to carb ratio.
It would be difficult for an elite tennis player to achieve success while being
addicted to tobacco. It would be impossible (or nearly impossible) to maintain
the necessary cardiovascular fitness while filling your lungs with smoke. Looking
back 40 years, it’s easy to criticize a professional women’s tennis group for courting a tobacco company. Yet Virginia Slims was a welcomed sponsor to the
women’s tennis circuit in the 1970s. It was Virginia Slims that paved the way to
bring some financial parity to women’s tennis. So even a harmful advertiser
ended up doing an important thing. Which is the greater good?
While the Olympics feature many professional athletes, one of the joys of the
event is that it is a high-level event in which amateur athletes have the chance
to shine. In colleges, nonrevenue sports are typically called “Olympic Sports”
for a reason. Student athletes who participate in the Olympic Sports programs
usually are not the high-profile athletes we see on football field and basketball
courts. Instead, they are elite athletes who spend their lives training, often
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Advertising and Sporting Events 231
holding down jobs. Sports like rowing, cross-country running, and soccer (to
name just a few) require tremendous amounts of aerobic capacity – and healthy
eating is a basic starting point to this disciplined lifestyle. Yet Coca-Cola and
McDonald’s were two of the “mega” sponsors of the 2012 Olympic Games –
neither of which promotes a healthy lifestyle.
While on the surface it might seem easy to decide which side is correct in
this controversy, on a second look it quickly becomes more challenging. Neither
Marie Hardin nor Erin Whiteside shies away from the controversy. Instead, they
each attack it head on – and while they argue from different perspectives,
together they present a larger picture of the relationship between sports and
advertising. Who makes the stronger argument? You decide.
Ideas to Get You Thinking . . .
1
2
3
Watch two different sporting events on television. For example, you might
watch golf for an hour and then switch to a football game. Make a list of all
the food advertising that is included during the timeframe you watched.
What did you observe? Are there differences between the sports? If so, why
do you think that is?
Watch an hour of NASCAR and try to list all the logos you see on the race
cars. Go through your list and see if there is any particular conflict in the
product being associated with a car. What are your observations?
Look at a sporting magazine. Don’t limit yourself to Sports Illustrated. Make
a list of all the food advertising in the magazine. What patterns do you
see? How many healthy foods are advertised? What conclusions can
you draw?
Other Topics to Debate
1
2
3
Certain kinds of advertising may be appropriate for one kind of sporting
event but not another.
Sports that cater to an older audience have less of a responsibility to make
sure the products are appropriate to that audience.
Global sporting events (such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl) should
have higher regulations for its advertising because of the potential stronger
influence these venues can have on their audiences.
If You’d Like to Know More . . .
Bee, C. C. and Madrigal, R. (2012). It’s not whether you win or lose: It’s how the game is
played. Journal of Advertising 41(1): 47–58.
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Erin Whiteside and Marie Hardin
Jones, S. C., Phillipson, L., and Barrie, L. (2010). “Most men drink . . . especially like when
they play sports”: Alcohol advertising during sporting broadcasts and the potential
impact on child audiences. Journal of Public Affairs 10(1–2): 59–73. doi:10.1002/
pa.340
Sandberg, H. (2011). Tiger talk and candy king: Marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to Swedish children. Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research 36(2): 217–244. doi:10.1515/COMM.2011.011
Smolianov, P. and Aiyeku, J. F. (2009). Corporate marketing objectives and evaluation
measures for integrated television advertising and sports event sponsorships.
Journal of Promotion Management 15(1–2): 74–89. doi:10.1080/10496490902901977
Taylor, C. R. (2012). The London Olympics 2012: What advertisers should watch. International Journal of Advertising 31(3): 459–464. doi:10.2501/IJA-31-3-459-464.
Argument
Advertising unhealthy products
during sporting events makes
sense as an advertising strategy
Erin Whiteside
University of Tennessee, USA
During the 2011 telecast of the Super Bowl, TiVo tracked a sample of users to
examine the commercials viewers engaged most with; spots by Doritos, Snickers, and Pepsi ranked in the top five (van Riper 2011). It is not uncommon to
see food and drink brands connected with sports. For instance, McDonald’s has
been a major corporate sponsor in the Olympic Games since 1972 and some of
the most omnipresent brands during American collegiate football bowl games
are related to beer – despite the fact that many of the players on the field are
not of legal drinking age. The commonality among these trends is the high visibility of products associated with unhealthy habits in a venue where otherwise
healthy activities (sports) are taking place.
Amateur athletics reformists have long opposed the visibility of alcohol with
collegiate sports, with some success; many collegiate sports venues forbid the
sale of alcohol during school-sponsored events, for instance. Recently, health
advocates have raised similar concerns about the prevalence of “unhealthy” food
brands in association with sporting events, arguing that the ubiquity of these ads
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Advertising and Sporting Events 233
imply that one can eat poorly and still succeed as an athlete (Barrand 2004;
Cornwell 2008; Clarkson 2010). Given the rise of obesity in developed countries,
health advocates are concerned that unhealthy food advertisements send the
wrong message amid this growing health crisis. Addressing a health concern like
obesity is a worthwhile goal, but banning companies that sell “unhealthy” products like fast food, soda, alcohol, or tobacco may do little to curb the problem
at which such a ban is targeted. Assumptions underpinning these bans imply
that sports are unequivocally healthy and that related diseases such as obesity
or alcoholism are solely the function of faulty individual choices that reflect
one’s weak self control. Further, by classifying brands into “healthy” and
“unhealthy” categories, sports organizations would be offering lucrative sponsorship and advertising opportunities to companies that may offer “healthy”
products, but fail society in other ways that may be more far reaching. In this
essay I review these arguments, and then conclude by suggesting a more complex
measure for assessing a company’s social worth.
Questioning the Assumptions Underpinning an
“Unhealthy” Products Ban
There is no question that the United States and other Western developed countries are facing an obesity crisis. In the United States alone, a 2011 report from
the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed
that obesity rates in 16 states has risen in the previous year and not fallen in any
one state, despite ongoing efforts from government and private sector groups
to curb this epidemic. In response, health advocates have suggested banning
advertising and sponsorship related to unhealthy food products in sports venues
(Barrand 2004; Cornwell 2008; Clarkson, J. 2010); the efforts follow similar proposed bans in response to smoking and alcohol abuse. Advocates of the ban say
that children who see those advertisements are particularly susceptible to developing unhealthy habits through the association of, say, fast food with football.
The logic of banning sponsorship and other forms of advertising from fast
food, soda, and other “unhealthy” products in forums where “healthy” activities
(sports) take place is grounded in two main assumptions: (1) the implication
that obesity is an individual condition stemming from individual choices about
food consumption, and (2) the notion that sports and its related practices are
always healthy. These two assumptions are flawed and their uncritical acceptance may in fact exacerbate the very problem a proposed ban hopes to
eliminate.
Explaining the Obesity Epidemic
Defining the source of the obesity epidemic is more complex than blaming the
widespread availability of unhealthy food and the individual choice to consume
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it. Surely it is an individual decision to eat a hamburger versus a salad, given
both options, but all reputable medical research shows that obesity is mitigated
by myriad factors, including gender, race, geography, and socioeconomic status.
For example, a review of leading research on the obesity epidemic in the United
States showed that non-Hispanic blacks have the highest prevalence of obesity,
and all racial minorities have a higher combined prevalence of obesity by almost
10 percentage points over whites. In addition, many studies show that individuals who have lower levels of education and socioeconomic status are associated
with higher levels of obesity, as is living in the southeastern United States (Wang
and Beydoun 2007). Research also shows that there are fewer supermarkets in
black neighborhoods compared to white neighborhoods and that they are farther
in distance, creating a disproportionate level of access to healthy food (Morland
et al. 2002). These “food deserts,” as they are often called, contribute to the
maintenance of social hierarchies and are an example of a kind of invisible
privilege enjoyed by wealthier (and often white) Americans. Thus, in addressing
something like the obesity epidemic, efforts must be focused at the societal
rather than at the individual level. After all, if following a long day at school you
had the choice to drive 10 miles to a supermarket or one mile to a fast food
restaurant (where the food is also cheaper), you might choose the latter –
despite knowing it is the weaker option from a nutritional standpoint.
Noting the cultural and environmental factors at play in relation to any widespread social problem is important when addressing possible solutions. In continuing with the theme of obesity, if we engage in practices that invite us to see
it as an individual rather than a societal condition, we can justify the assertion
that a person – or group’s – obesity problem is the function of their own lack of
motivation and self-control. Ultimately, viewing any social condition as a solely
individual one excuses us from confronting systemic inequities that contribute
to the problem. In relation to obesity, access to healthier and better-quality food
is critical to the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. The disproportionate rate at
which these options are available to certain groups is one way in which social
hierarchies are maintained. Thus, it is important to avoid discourse – such as a
ban on unhealthy products – that invites us to see these kinds of social problems
as a result of individual shortcomings.
Questioning the Idea of Sports as Always Healthy
The proposed ban on unhealthy products in relation to sports is also underpinned by an assumption that sports – especially those at the elite level where
a ban on unhealthy brands would be most relevant – are in fact, always healthy
and good for the body. This may seem like a strange assumption to question;
after all, physical activity is, presumably, good for the body and the very antithesis of something such as smoking or unhealthy eating. Yet elite level sports are
in many ways unhealthy. Sure, professional athletes are in prime physical shape,
but recent high-profile scandals have challenged the illusion that their abilities
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Advertising and Sporting Events 235
are solely the function of long hours in the gym. Some of Major League Baseball’s
biggest stars have admitted to ingesting harmful drugs in order to become
stronger and to recover from injuries more quickly. In another example, recent
medical research has uncovered frightening data about the effect playing football has on the brain; one study commissioned by the National Football League
found that its former players were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other memoryrelated diseases at higher rates than the general population (Weir et al. 2009).
This is not to say that we should regard sports as unequivocally unhealthy
per se, but rather to point out the faulty premise underpinning the ban of
“unhealthy” products with a “healthy” activity like sports. Doing so may obscure
the ways in which the pursuit of elite-level competition may invite athletes to
engage in very unhealthy practices that may in turn send messages to kids that
are equally as problematic as the notion that one can achieve elite-level skills
on a steady diet of French fries. Already these messages are filtering down to
youths; for instance, research has shown that male high school athletes are more
likely to use anabolic steroids than nonathletes (Dodge and Jaccard 2006). Certainly engaging in physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, but by always
uncritically regarding sports as “healthy,” we may implicitly ignore the many
ways in which it is not, at the expense of youth emulating their favorite stars.
“Healthy” and “Not Healthy” Brands
Is too Simplistic
Classifying brands as “healthy” and “not healthy” also creates a problematic
distinction that rewards certain companies for their choice to produce a product
that is not necessarily unhealthy to the individual body upon its consumption,
but destructive in other ways to wider society. There is a tremendous benefit
when companies associate themselves with sporting events, and providing that
opportunity only to those entities that meet an overly simplistic definition of
“healthy” privileges companies who still engage in other problematic practices,
including those that violate basic human rights.
The Benefit of Sports Sponsorship
The opportunity for companies to sponsor or advertise at sporting events is
often an expensive marketing strategy. For example, estimates show that Fox
charged about $100,000 per second to advertisers during its 2011 Super Bowl
telecast (Smith 2011). McDonald’s entered into an agreement with the Olympics
to sponsor the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the 2004 Summer Games
in Athens in a deal valued at between $50 and $60 million (Cebrzynski 2000).
McDonald’s has been a steady presence in the Olympics; in fact before the International Olympic Committee even named London as the 2012 Summer Games
host, the city’s organizational committee had secured a £1 million sponsorship
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commitment from the fast food giant to support the bidding process alone
(Solley 2004). Although these capital outlays are staggering, the payoff, however,
is lucrative. Procter & Gamble has stated that, following its sponsorship of the
2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, it experienced a $100 million rise in incremental sales in the United States (Whitehead and Reynolds 2010). And at a recent
meeting of the International Advertising Association, top company personnel
discussed the benefits of sports sponsorship for their organizations; one Visa
executive told his fellow conference members that his company’s biggest
problem was not the cost of sports sponsorship, but “finding enough sporting
events of sufficient stature to sponsor” (Buchan 2006).
There is a reason companies funnel so many resources into sports; association with a well-liked sporting event leads to higher rates of interest and favor
toward the brand from individuals who view that event (Speed and Thompson
2000). Take the Olympics, for example. The Games are considered “one of the
most promising sponsorship opportunities in sport” in part because of how the
event connotes positive feelings such as global unity, friendship, and triumph
(Apostolopoulou and Papadimitriou 2004: 181). Aligning themselves with such
feel-good narratives represents a golden opportunity for many brands, justifying
the high cost. A longitudinal study examining the impact on brand awareness
stemming from Olympics sponsorship found that each of the brands reviewed
was effectively able to use its sponsorship as a way to remain in the public
consciousness (Tripodi and Hirons 2009) More specifically, in the hypercompetitive footwear category, Nike entered the Olympics with about 75 percent
of the adults sampled recognizing the brand’s association with the Olympics.
Following the event, Nike maintained its level of association with the Games,
while fellow competitors Adidas and Reebok experienced a serious decline on
the same measure. In an intense era of global capitalism, this kind of competitive
advantage is critical to a brand’s success. Thus, any decisions granting the ability
to engage in sports sponsorship and advertising must be taken with the utmost
care, as denying this opportunity to, say, a fast food company would come at a
serious cost. Conversely, the decision to reward, say, a sports apparel company
with this same opportunity would come at a great benefit.
Examining a Company’s Social Worth
In making choices about who may sponsor or advertise in sporting events,
we are making a judgment about a company’s social worth. Yet many companies that do not sell alcohol, tobacco, or fatty foods and soda engage in
practices that are destructive in other ways. It was hard to see the news coverage of the BP oil spill in 2010 and not question the harmful effects of offshore
drilling on fragile ocean ecosystems as nearly five million barrels of oil spewed
into the Gulf of Mexico following an oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
Other industry practices have also resulted in human costs. The sporting goods
and apparel industry has undergone intense scrutiny over the last 20 years for
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Advertising and Sporting Events 237
questionable labor practices that include child labor and unsanitary and harsh
working conditions. Although a number of companies have worked to publicly
repair their image and address the problem, recent reports show that the official
2010 World Cup soccer ball called “Jubilani” (which translates to “rejoice” in
Zulu) was made in four countries that routinely use child labor (Hawthorne
2010). Such practices reproduce global class divisions and ultimately help maintain Western superiority at the expense of individuals in developing countries.
Yet because their related products do not fall into the “unhealthy” category, these
companies would be free to continue advertising at athletic events under a proposed ban. While ending the obesity epidemic and curbing alcohol and tobacco
abuse are certainly worthwhile goals, we must question why these problems of
developed nations are privileged over making sure laborers in developing world
countries are granted basic human rights in factories or that a corporate entity
minimize its effect on the environment.
Conclusion: A Better Measure
Instead of making an overly simplistic “healthy” versus “not healthy” distinction
between brands, perhaps a more useful measure to use in assessing acceptable
sporting sponsorship and advertising would include a consideration of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. According to Carroll (1991),
who is often called the most widely cited authority on this topic, a company’s
engagement in CSR efforts are evaluated on four measures: (1) successfully
pursuing maximum profitability; (2) complying with all laws and regulations; (3)
operating in a way that reflects the values of society at large; and (4) supporting
social welfare and charitable endeavors. David et al. (2005) further divide CSR
activities into three categories they call (1) moral/ethical, for example, treating
employees fairly, acting responsibly toward the environment; (2) discretionary,
for example, raising awareness of social problems; and (3) relational, such as
demonstrating a willingness to listen to stakeholders. These examples point to
a more sophisticated way of measuring a company’s benefit to society (or its
harmful effect in the case of a lack of CSR efforts).
Each year, the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and Reputation Institute produces a list that ranks companies by their CSR efforts. In 2011
that list included several companies not always known for healthy food offerings, including Coca-Cola at the number 13 spot. While it is true that no athlete
will reach elite levels by consuming excessive amounts of soda, through its CSR
efforts, the Coca-Cola company has supported healthy habits and lifestyles in
other ways. For example, in the Netherlands it created “Mission Olympic,” the
largest secondary school platform in that country, with more than 150,000 participants and a goal to encourage Dutch youth to participate in competitions in
16 different sports. In the United States the company sponsored a series of
sports clinics for youths where they had the opportunity to learn sporting and
nutrition skills.
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The goal here is not to tout Coca-Cola as much as to point to the necessary
complexity in measuring a company’s social value or harm. In the examples
stated above Coca-Cola is engaging in a discretionary form of CSR and thus
finding a way to contribute positively to the community. This assessment raises
an interesting question, then: What is better, a company that sells sporting
apparel using harmful labor tactics or a company that sells soda while also creating opportunities for youths to exercise and engage in sporting activity? If sports
will continue to be held to a moral standard in relation to the brands associated
with it, then using a CSR measure as opposed to a “healthy” versus “unhealthy”
distinction would allow for a more sophisticated assessment to account for how
a company’s practices and strategies affect society at large.
References
Apostolopoulou, A. and Papadimitriou, D. (2004). “Welcome home”: Motivations and
objectives of the 2004 Grand National Olympic Sponsors. Sport Marketing Quarterly
13: 180–192.
Barrand, D. (2004). Sport’s biggest sponsors fight their corner. Marketing (Mar. 18), 15.
Buchan, N. (2006). Sports sponsorship – still giving enough bang for the buck? B&T
Weekly 56(2567): 5.
Carroll, A. B. (1991). The pyramid of corporate social responsibility: Toward the moral
management of organizational stakeholders – Balancing economic, legal, and social
responsibilities. Business Horizons 34(July–August): 39–48.
Cebrzynski, G. (2000). McDonald’s extends Olympics sponsorship. Nation’s Restaurant
News 34(25): 6.
Clarkson, J. (2010). Editorial: Time to get tough on unhealthy sponsorships. Health Promotion Journal of Australia 21(3): 164–165.
Cornwell, T. B. (2008). State of the art and science in sponsorship-linked marketing.
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David, P., Kline, S., and Dai, Y. (2005). Corporate social responsibility practices, corporate
identity, and purchase intention: A dual process model. Journal of Public Relations
Research 17(3): 291–313.
Dodge, T. L. and Jaccard, J. J. (2006). The effect of high school sports participation on
the use of performance-enhancing substances in young adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health 39(3): 367–373.
Hawthorne, M. (2010). No rejoicing for those stitched up by World Cup merchandise. Age
(June 14), Business, 2.
Morland, K., Wing, S., Diez Roux, A., and Poole, C. (2002). Neighborhood characteristics
associated with the location of food stores and food service places. American
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Smith, A. (2011). Superbowl ad: Is $3 million worth it? CNN Money (Feb. 3). At http://
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Mar. 27, 2013.
Solley, S. (2004). London 2012 bid aims for £12m sponsor fees. Marketing (Feb. 26), 1.
Speed, R. and Thompson, P. (2000). Determinants of sports sponsorship response.
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Tripodi, J. A. and Hirons, M. (2009). Sponsorship leveraging case studies – Sydney 2000
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Advertising and Sporting Events 239
van Riper, T. (2011). The most watched Super Bowl ads. Forbes (Feb. 7). At http://www.
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Counterargument
Sporting events and advertising
products are contrary to athletes’
lifestyles: The consequences of
mixed messages
Marie Hardin
Penn State University, USA
Of the 111 million viewers who tuned into the Super Bowl in February 2011,
many likely paid as much attention to the commercials as to the game (the Green
Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers). After all, the commercials were highstakes investments, as advertisers paid an estimated $3 million for a 30-second
spot (Elliott 2011a; Smith 2011).
The number of viewers for that single sitting in front of the television – and
the Super Bowl’s reputation as a cultural “must see” each year – make it the
single most powerful TV event for advertising recall by consumers. The game
has become “the preferred venue for introducing new corporate constellations,
launching new products, and more routinely, building brand awareness” (Wenner
2008: 135).
What products and brands will consumers recall as a result of the 2011 Super
Bowl? Although there were plenty of commercials for automobiles – Audi, BMW,
Chrysler, Hyundai, Volkswagen, and Kia – and dot-com brands, such as E*Trade,
GoDaddy.com, or Cars.com, almost one-quarter of commercial time was devoted
to fast food and alcohol.
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It’s regrettable that a spectacle designed to celebrate some of the finest-tuned
athletes on the planet is also a platform for products that are an anathema
to healthy, fit bodies: Doritos, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Snickers, Wendy’s fast food,
and beer.
The Super Bowl isn’t the only place where we find such stark contradictions
between promotional messages and what happens between them. Take the
Olympics – a global showcase of fit, healthy, ideal bodies in a variety of athletic
events. McDonald’s – home of junk-food meals where a single burger, fries, and
drink can account for more than half of the recommended calories and threequarters of the recommended daily fat allowance for an adult – touts itself as a
“balanced eating” sponsor (Elliott 2011b: para. 3). More than 550 health experts
would characterize McDonald’s menu differently – as one that promotes chronic
health problems (McIntyre 2011).
The restaurant chain’s junk-food fare is certainly not the stuff of athletic training tables. Case in point: Dara Torres, an Olympic swimmer and “global ambassador” for McDonald’s, is well known for her careful attention to a strict diet
plan – one that eschews the saturated fat found in a McDonald’s French fry – and
instead concentrates on lean protein, vegetables, grains and fruit (Crouse 2007;
ABC News 2010; Childers 2010; Elliott 2011b; Hum, n.d.). Her own fast food
meals come from “Whole Foods or Fresh Market to keep meals on the healthy
side,” she told an interviewer (Hum, n.d.: para. 19).
Promoting unhealthy products during the Super Bowl or Olympics – or the
broadcast of any other elite-level sporting event, for that matter – should be
understood as a form of “false advertising.” These promotions associate healthy,
active lifestyles with alcohol and junk food. The dire, long-term effects are
perhaps most pronounced for children, who are most vulnerable to harmful
marketing messages and to the socially beneficial messages that can be carried
in elite sporting competitions.
The “Dirt” on Sports-Related Sponsorships
Of the tens of millions of viewers who push sports programming to the top of
the Nielsen ratings each year, a healthy percentage are youths (Nicholson and
Hoye 2009; Gregory 2010). Nine in 10 children ages 8 to 17 report that they
consume sports through the media, mostly through television. More than half of
youths surveyed reported watching sports content at least once a week (AAF/
ESPN 2001).
Watching sports can be valuable for children because “there are important
lessons to be learned, including the importance of good sporting behavior, cooperating with a team, handling disappointment and learning to focus,” according
to the Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP, n.d.: para. 2). The idea
that consuming sports can be socially beneficial for children is well accepted,
as sports are associated with ideals such as success, self-discipline, and hard
work (Frank 2003; Eitzen and Sage 2008). Finally, watching televised sports also
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Advertising and Sporting Events 241
promotes participation in physical activity by youths – leading to healthy habits
that could last a lifetime (Coakley 2004). In other words, watching sports has
the potential to lead to a healthier and happier life.
It should be no surprise that an increasing number of products and brands
have sought – through advertising and sponsorships – to associate with activities
related to the highest levels of health and fitness. Analyses of sports-related
broadcasts, for instance, have found that viewers are subject to corporate logos,
plastered on uniforms, throughout stadia and in on-screen graphics, during at
least half of viewing time (Sherriff et al. 2009). An analysis of literature and
marketing reports shows that much of viewers’ exposure is to food and beverage
companies (Kelly et al. 2011a). Slightly more than half of all television beer ads
appear on sports programming; they are most often seen on broadcasts of professional football, basketball, NASCAR, and college football and basketball –
where many of the players themselves are not of legal drinking age (Collins
et al. 2007).
Wenner (2008: 136) calls the power of sports programming “dirt” that “rubs
off” from the televised event to the commercial or sponsorship message adjacent
to it. Because fans identify so strongly with the positive ideologies surrounding
sports, the association – the “rub” – is especially powerful. Products such as
Coca-Cola, Bud Light, or Snickers, then, benefit from the logic of sports. Wenner
writes that sports dirt “has long been strategically employed by advertisers
looking for benefit in the mediated sports marketplace” (2008: 149).
An example is in the relationship between the promotion of alcohol (beer,
most often) and displays of athleticism. A content analysis of advertising during
popular televised sports events found that alcohol-related messages contained
features that could be interpreted as associating the consumption of beer with
social and athletic success (Jones et al. 2010).
The benefit of sports dirt for companies that market unhealthy products such
as fast food and alcohol is obvious – the dirt obscures a relationship that is patently illogical. Investing in a commercial relationship with sports teams and
programming may be seen as an attempt to improve the image of companies
that have no business associating with fitness-related activities and lifestyles
(Sherriff et al. 2009). Unfortunately, research shows that most of the food and
beverage connected to spectator sports through advertising and sponsorships
is unhealthy, contributing to a variety of chronic diseases and obesity (Clarkson
2010; Kelly et al. 2011a).
Promoting an Unhealthy Relationship
The investment of corporations like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in sportsaffiliated sponsorships and advertising has paid strong dividends; research
shows that getting “dirty” by sidling up to the world’s most fit athletes with food
and drink that certainly isn’t part of their everyday diets produces results. For
instance, sports sponsorship alone positively impacts product recall, especially
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242
Erin Whiteside and Marie Hardin
if the sponsorship has been consistent over time. In fact, sponsorship brands
reap strong product recall without running the same number of advertisements
as competitors might run (Hastings et al. 2006). Overall, many studies have
confirmed that promotion of food – unhealthy or healthy – influences individual
consumption and diet-related behaviors. A report for the World Health Organization summarized the influence of food-related promotion as “significant,
independent of other influences” and observes that it operates at both the category (junk food) and brand (Snickers) level (Hastings et al. 2006: 3).
The way in which sponsorships and marketing messages have been able to
link unhealthy products with sports has been an effective advertising and marketing strategy (Clarkson 2010). The bottom line is that “consumption is
increased” (Rehm and Kanteres 2008: 1967).
Research shows that children are especially vulnerable to this false relationship, as their attitudes toward and consumption of junk food and alcohol are
influenced by marketing messages (Clarkson 2010). The World Health Organization report published in 2006 outlines a litany of studies showing that youths have
“extensive recall” of food advertising in general; they are “interested in trying
advertised foods and often ask their parents to buy them” (Hastings et al. 2006).
Studies have demonstrated the susceptibility of young viewers to sports dirt
in alcohol advertising. In one study, interviews with children who watched
alcohol advertising during sports events found that they associated a preference
for alcohol with youth, athleticism, and humor (Phillipson and Jones 2007).
Middle school students had a high awareness of alcohol sponsors and brands,
“and associate these products with sports and with positive personal characteristics and outcomes” (Jones et al. 2010).
Research also demonstrates that young people who are exposed to messages
that promote alcohol don’t wait to try it. Simply put, promotion increases the
probability that adolescents will drink (Nicholson and Hoye 2009). Meanwhile,
the pledge by US trade associations for alcohol suppliers to restrict advertising
only to programming aimed mostly at adults has generally been judged to be a
hollow one. And – not surprisingly, given the allure of sports dirt – there is
special concern among medical experts about the infiltration of sports programming by alcohol promotions. According to research published in the Journal of
the American Medical Association, even in the face of increasing evidence of
links between “alcohol advertising through sports and alcohol consumption by
adolescents,” such advertising on sports broadcasts has climbed in recent years
(Nicholson and Hoye 2009: 1481). Public health experts have characterized the
levels of such advertising as “unacceptable” (Sherriff et al. 2009: 19).
The Consequences of (Sports) Dirty Advertising
The societal price tag for promoting alcohol and unhealthy (junk) food to every
age level – but especially to children – through sports programming is high.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol overconsumption at every
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Advertising and Sporting Events 243
age level has led to higher death rates and an increase in chronic health problems. Alcohol use has been deemed the leading public health problem among
youths in the United States (Nicholson and Hoye 2009).
The consequences of promoting the myth of healthy, fit bodies fueled with
Big Macs and French fries and washed down with Pepsi or Bud Light – then
finished with a Snickers bar – may be even more far-reaching. Obesity and the
many health ailments that come with it (such as type 2 diabetes, for instance)
is becoming a global health problem. The number of obese people on the planet
has doubled since 1980, and 65 percent of the world’s population live in countries where the problem of being overweight kills more people than that of being
underweight (WHO 2011). One-third of Americans are classified as obese (ParkerPope 2011). And research indicates that obesity often begins in childhood (Boyse
2010).
Of course, obesity and its health-related spin offs cannot be traced to a single
source, such as individual food preferences. It is the result of an interrelated
web of factors involving individual choices, environmental influences, and socioeconomic factors (FSA 2004). However, there is no disputing that time in front
of a television and exposure to thousands of commercials that push fattening,
non-nutritional food is not a minor factor (FSA 2004; Hastings et al. 2006; Boyse
2010).
For that reason, it could be argued that all advertising of junk food should be
subject to scrutiny. Public health experts, however, have reserved special criticism for the dirtiest of unhealthy marketing ploys: the attempt to pair images of
healthy, fit bodies with their greasy, sugary, fattening antithesis. Logically, these
experts have proposed a ban on advertising in sports-related venues as a “starting point” in helping consumers – young and old alike – better understand the
true relationship between alcohol, junk food, and health (Nicholson and Hoye
2009; Clarkson 2010).
In the meantime, research also shows that the promotion of healthy food
choices through sponsorships and advertising can net positive behavioral change
among consumers (Donovan et al. 1999). So, what about advertisements for
low-fat yogurt, lean protein, whole grains, and a heaping portion of fruits and
vegetables during the next Super Bowl? That would be truth in advertising.
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