Lifting the lid on corporate sponsorship

How corporate sponsors exerts influence health-related organisations.
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01.Money and influence

Money in pocket

When the government health-star rating system for foods was pulled on the day it was meant to launch, it pointed to unexpected interference. It turned out the Assistant Health Minister’s chief of staff had links with the food industry. Website gone, PR problem solved – or so they thought.

Corporate and political history is rife with examples insider influence on power holders, but not all companies are blessed with such connections. Corporate sponsorship is an increasingly common – and sometimes controversial – way that companies can gain exposure and influence.

Some companies fund social and environmental not-for-profit groups because they believe in it, are philanthropic for the sake of it, or want to be (or be seen as) good corporate citizens. By and large, though, sponsors expect some payback for their money, and they can benefit in one or more of several key ways.

Here we look specifically at not-for-profit organisations and professional bodies in the health arena, and how sponsors operate in this area.

Healthy halo

Sponsorship can improve a company’s image by creating goodwill and a positive association between its brand and the organisation it is supporting. So when McDonald's provides funding for Ronald McDonald House Charities, which help sick children, people feel warmly towards them. This can create a “halo effect”, where its goodness in supporting sick children extends more generally to the company as a whole – it’s good that McDonald's gives money to sick children, therefore McDonald’s is a good company.

However, McDonald's sponsorship of Little Athletics and other sporting groups is a more contentious issue. Every week there are thousands of kids running around in their Little Athletics uniforms with the McDonald's logo on display, earning their McDonald’s vouchers as rewards.

On its website McDonald’s boasts of its sponsorships of various kids programs, claiming, “Today we like to focus on activities that improve the health and wellbeing of Australian children”.

Critics argue McDonald’s is simply avoiding responsibility of its role, as a provider of food high in fat, sugar and salt, in the current obesity epidemic by shifting the onus from healthy diet to physical activity - then providing funds and publicity for such physical activity.

Dr Jane Martin, of the Obesity Policy Coalition, points out that the hamburger chain is targeting a vulnerable population. Research has shown that marketing to kids through sport influences the types of food children prefer, demand and consume. And ultimately this undermines healthy eating messages and is likely to contribute to poor diets, negative health outcomes, weight gain and obesity.

A McDonald’s spokesperson told us, “The main purpose of our support is to add value to the community and to encourage kids to be active and embrace balanced lifestyles. We encourage children to ‘never stop playing’ by contributing to sporting organisations that develop kids’ sports skills and provide opportunities for them to play.”

Health washing

Halo effect sounds pleasant “Health washing” sounds less pleasant, and is when a company marketing unhealthy products tries not only to look good (halo effect) but simultaneously seeks to distract from its unhealthy image by supporting healthy causes.

McDonald’s sponsorship of Little Athletics may also be considered health washing (or weight-washing). Like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola spruiks the value of physical exercise in leading a healthy lifestyle, diverting attention from the role of unhealthy food and drink choices in obesity and chronic disease.

Coca-Cola has been accused of health washing for its sponsorship of Exercise is Medicine, an international program devised and run by exercise physiologists, which utilises specially designed exercise programs to treat chronic health conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis and osteoporosis) and obesity, as well as certain forms of cancer.

The local website carries the Coca-Cola logo, with the accompanying text: “Coca-Cola South Pacific supports local initiatives which help people lead more active and healthy lifestyles”.

Critics feel that it’s disingenuous, given that sugary soft drinks have been named and shamed as one of the main contributors to the modern day obesity epidemic, along with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer – the very conditions Exercise is Medicine addresses. Shifting attention to physical activity suggests it’s ok to drink sugary drinks as long as you exercise it off – and that you can outrun a bad diet.

A similar accusation is levelled at Coca-Cola for its sponsorship of the Happiness Cycle program with Bicycle Network, which in turn was heavily criticised for accepting the money. However the decision allowed the Bicycle Network to implement a program that could benefit thousands of teenagers by getting them outdoors riding on free bikes. The network believes that the end justifies the means.

We invited Coke to comment, but they have yet to respond.

Publicity drive and overdrive

When every kiddie at Little Athletics runs around with a McDonald’s logo on their shirt, that’s advertising. When cricketers wear beer logos on their shirts, that’s advertising. And they’re advertising to kids, effectively getting around rules regarding marketing to kids on TV and in print and elsewhere.

Drug companies do the same thing with their freebie handouts to doctors – pens and notepads and so on. As well as keeping the brand name top of mind, psychological studies have shown that receiving even small gifts drives recipients to reciprocate, in this case perhaps by prescribing a particular drug over another equally appropriate one. Medicines Australia, one of the peak bodies representing pharmaceutical companies, is cracking down on small gifts for this reason.

However, pharma-sponsored lavish dinners and overseas conferences show another form of influence. At present there are moves to make these transactions more transparent, although the proposed system of disclosure will be self-regulated by the industry and allow doctors to opt-out. Obviously the ones who are embarrassed by their gifts will consider opting out of disclosure.



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