#MixedMessages: Sports Sponsorship by ‘Junk Food’ Brands

13 February 2019

On scrolling through Twitter, one hashtag catches my eye: #WhereEveryonePlays. On further inspection this turns out to be the slogan used to promote Coca-Cola GB and the English Premier League’s new sponsorship campaign.

Announced at the end of 2018, Coca-Cola GB have signed a 3.5-year partnership deal with the English Premier League. Alongside the social media campaign is an extensive list of marketing methods including a TV advert, VIP experiences and promotions for match tickets on-pack, as well as a bus tour.[1]

Similarly, the Scottish soft drink IRN-BRU – often affectionately referred to as “Scotland’s other national drink” - has sponsored the Scottish Professional Football League’s (SPFL), Scottish Challenge Cup since 2016. On revealing the partnership, the SPFL announced that the cup would be renamed ‘The IRN BRU cup.’ As well as stadium-based advertising, the cup’s section on the SPFL website is adorned in IRN-BRUs distinctive orange and blue branding, with the cup itself sporting orange and blue ribbons and the IRN-BRU emblem[2].

The question that immediately springs to my mind is: can sports sponsorship by junk food brands really be considered a responsible marketing practice, or does it send the public #MixedMessages?

In Scotland, obesity rates have reached 29% for adults, whilst 13% of children are at risk of obesity[3]. As a nation, promotion of physical activity is a key public health priority. On one hand sport has successfully encouraged physical activity and the health benefits that come along with it, as seen in Football Fans in Training (FFIT). Originating in Scotland, FFIT is a healthy living and weight-loss programme held at professional football clubs, now being rolled out across the world[4]. On the other hand, we continue to see brands known for their high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods sponsoring sports teams and events, despite the evidence surrounding junk food marketing to children being clear: promotion of HFSS foods to children affects food preference and can increase calorie intake[5],[6],[7].


It’s nothing new – Coca-Cola have been sponsoring The Olympic Games since 1928. Until recently, McDonald’s was also a sponsor. Football Associations across Scotland, England and Wales all partner with ‘junk food’ brands.

It’s not just us – evidence from around the world demonstrates that this is an international issue.

  • In New Zealand, the KidsCam study, led by Professor Louise Signal of the University of Otago, found that children are exposed to around alcohol marketing 4.5 times a day. Sports sponsorship was the biggest contributor, not just on TV, but on merchandise[8].
  • Research undertaken by the Cancer Council, New South Wales and the Prevention Research Collaboration, University of Sydney found that 69% of children thought of the brands sponsoring their clubs as ‘cool’ and 59% liked to ‘return the favour to their sponsors’ by purchasing their products[9]. Almost 75% of parents felt that sponsorship of elite sports influenced their children.
  • In the US, a 2018 study found that millions of children are exposed to junk food advertising by HFSS sponsors of sporting events[10]. 76% of foods advertised had poor nutrition scores, and sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for over 52% of all non-alcoholic beverages shown.

What are we doing about it?

Although both the UK and Scottish Governments are addressing restrictions on HFSS marketing, neither have introduced restrictions on HFSS brand partnerships with sports organisations.

In 2018, SUGAR SMART and Healthy Stadia wrote an open letter to UK football associations asking them not to enter new partnerships with HFSS brands. The letter was supported and signed by 50 experts in the field, including Obesity Action Scotland’s Programme Lead, Lorraine Tulloch[11].

Healthy Stadia is a European organisation working with clubs, stadiums and governing bodies to endorse sports venues as ‘health promoting settings[12].’ Together with the Football Supporters Federation, they wrote an open letter to MPs in January 2019, asking for the introduction of mandatory regulation of HFSS sponsorship with football organisations[13].

This month, Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee replied to the letter positively, agreeing with the concerns raised and saying if current measures continue to be ineffective, “the Committee may wish to push the Government to accept your recommendation of bringing in regulation to prevent marketing and advertising across sporting organisations.”

At the end of February the Cross Party Group on Improving Scotland’s Health: 2021 and beyond will hear from Ms Vivienne Maclaren, Chair of Scottish Women’s Football about their experience of taking a stand against alcohol and gambling sponsorship. This was a bold step to improve the sponsorship agenda.  It would be great if this could be extended to include HFSS foods and if we saw more action like this across the sector.


[1] Coca-Cola, 2018. Premier League and Coca-Cola Great Britain team up. https://www.coca-cola.co.uk/stories/premier-league-and-coca-cola-great-britain-team-up

[2] https://spfl.co.uk/league/challenge-cup

[3] The Scottish Government, 2018. Obesity indicators, progress report – October 2018. https://www2.gov.scot/Topics/Statistics/Browse/Health/TrendObesity 

[4] Football Fans in Training. https://ffit.org.uk/

[5] Boyland EJ, Harrold JA, Kirkham TC, et al. 2011. Food commercials increase preference for energy-dense foods, particularly in children who watch more television. Pediatrics, 128(1): e93-e100.

[6] Boyland EJ, Nolan S, Kelly B, et al. 2016. Advertising as a cue to consume: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of acute exposure to unhealthy food or non-alcoholic beverage advertising on intake in children and adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103: 519-533.

[7] Thomas C, Hooper L, Petty R, et al. 2018. 10 Years On: New evidence on TV marketing and junk food eating amongst 11- 19 year olds 10 years after broadcast regulations.

[8] Chambers T, Pearson AL, Stanley J, et al. 2017. Children's exposure to alcohol marketing within supermarkets: An objective analysis using GPS technology and wearable cameras. Health & Place; 46:274-280.

[9] Kelly, 2013. Building solutions to protect children from unhealthy food and drink sport sponsorship.

[10] Bragg MA, Miller AN, Roberto CN et al. 2018. Sports Sponsorships of Food and Nonalcoholic Beverages. Pediatrics; 141(4):e20172822

[11] Food Active, 2018. Junk Food and Sports Sponsorship: Give sugar the red card! http://www.foodactive.org.uk/junk-food-and-sports-sponsorship-give-sugar-the-red-card/

[12] Healthy Stadia, 2019. https://healthystadia.eu/

[13] Healthy Stadia, 2019. #WhereEveryonePays: Sponsorship of Football by HFSS Brands https://healthystadia.eu/whereeveryonepays-sponsorship-of-football-by-hfss-brands/