Today Crikey kicks off a special investigation into how fast food marketers use sport and sporting stars to sell their wares. And we start with the Big Daddy of them all, McDonald’s, which launched a huge TV campaign with Shane Warne this summer.

For more stories and profiles, visit the Just Chew It landing page. Profiled brands include KFC, Milo, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.

Last month a survey of 12,000 Australian secondary school children revealed that one in four Aussie kids is overweight or obese, with numbers more than doubling over the last 25 years. According to Professor Ian Olver of the Cancer Council Australia, we are now facing a “chronic disease time bomb”, which could see today’s teenagers dying younger than their parents.

The same survey showed more than half these 12,000 children had tried a food or drink because they had seen it advertised, while roughly a fifth had bought a food or drink because it was endorsed by a sports star or celebrity.

And we’re talking about junk food here, because that’s where the biggest food companies like McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Nestle and Yum Brands spend their massive advertising budgets.

Another recent survey showed parents are just as easily persuaded by ads and celebrity endorsements, being twice as likely to buy junk (and think it healthy) if a sports star — like Shane Warne or Tim Cahill — is smiling out from the packet or the TV screen.

Yet more and more sports and stars are taking money to promote unhealthy food. Crikey’s investigation has shown that just about every junk food brand in Australia now uses sporting celebrities and sport to sell its wares. And just about every sport is taking millions of dollars to promote foods that many athletes would never touch.

Last February, the US food giant Mars agreed to pay $1 million a year to the Carlton Football Club to get its logo on Carlton’s jerseys. The deal was advertised with pictures of the team holding up Mars bars, something they would surely not normally eat.

Over in Western Australia, the burger chain Hungry Jacks is also now paying $1 million a year to get its name on West Coast Eagles shirts. The deal gives it prominent signage at the ground, which is beamed to TV audiences across Australia.

And as we all know, Shane Warne has recently struck it rich — as the new face of the huge McDonald’s marketing campaign that was all over Nine’s summer of cricket. Not only did Warnie feature on TV ads and the Macca’s homepage (he still does), he also popped up on the sightscreen behind the batsman throughout the Test and one-day series. And thousands of Aussie kids watch cricket on TV.

Even more worrying — in view of the latest childhood obesity figures — is that fast food companies like McDonald’s deliberately target children. McDonald’s sponsors Little Athletics in every state for kids as young as four and ran a Cricket Legends competition this summer aimed at boys as young as six, with a Warne coaching clinic as the prize. It also brands a Football4Schools soccer program and has 32,000 kids in Victorian basketball competitions and another 40,000 learning to swim in McDonald’s swim schools. It’s everywhere.

In 2009, McDonald’s signed a three-year deal with Collingwood and launched a series of junior football programs and events, including the “McDonald’s Mighty Footy Trip” and “McDonald’s Mighty Footy Nights”. According to the gush from Maccas and the Pies, the partnership — which Crikey understands is worth around $250,000 a year — is “dedicated to promoting healthy, active lifestyle choices to children”.

But Maccas is notorious: for giving away toys with its Happy Meals — it is now one of America’s biggest toy distributors — and for targeting kids with characters like Ronald McDonald. A 2007 US report cited research that more than half of Australian 9-10 year-olds believe Ronald knows what’s best for them to eat. More recently, McDonald’s bagged a hat trick in the Parents Jury 2009 Fame & Shame Awards for its underhand marketing to children.

“Give me the child to the age of seven and I’ll show you the man,” says the old Jesuit adage, and McDonald’s has clearly taken it to heart.

So too has rugby league boss David Gallop, who told The Sydney Morning Herald last week: ”We have got to be turning 7-year-olds on about rugby league, either as players or … fans for life.”

Coca-Cola clearly shares Gallop’s vision of grabbing them young. Despite a policy of not marketing to children, it sponsors the NRL’s U-13 Coca Cola Challenge Cup and the ARL’s U-13 Powerade Cup up north. It also brands the U-10 Powerade Cup for soccer in North Queensland, and targets pre-teens in its Kirks Lemonade TV ads, which show boys of 10 and 11 playing backyard cricket.

Gatorade, Milo, Uncle Toby’s and Cottee’s are other famous brands that are spending big to get their brands into kids sports like cricket, soccer, rugby league, AFL, basketball, swimming and athletics. Only tennis (which used to run McDonald’s-branded junior programs) and netball (which used to be sponsored by Gatorade) now remain on the sidelines.

“Commercial involvement is so important to the survival of sport in this modern day that we understand that sports are left with little option but to be associated with junk food brands,” says Netball Australia’s chief commercial officer Marne Flechner. “We don’t have a policy against the sponsorship of junk or fast food … though we are conscious of our messages to underage netballers.

“[But] we’re in a fortunate position … the only food company with a commercial interest in underage netball is pasta company San Remo… We’re delighted to have San Remo on board because we feel their brand values of healthy eating and family married nicely with junior netball.”

Sure, these brands all defend themselves with the disclaimer that their foods and drinks should be part of a balanced diet and an active, healthy lifestyle. But what the ads are saying is “buy me” and what the sports and celebrity endorsement is saying is “it’s OK”.

UPDATE 5.35pm:

A spokesperson for Coca Cola told Crikey:

Regarding our marketing to children policy, it is a policy that has been in place for a long time. On a regular basis we run training for our staff to ensure they understand the policy and checks to ensure compliance. The POWERADE Cup for under 10’s for example is a program that was picked up in one of our checks two years ago and subsequently the program was stopped. The web page you saw is out of date and we have contacted them to have the page updated. Regarding the Coca-Cola under 13 NRL Challenge Cup this is for 12 and 13-year-olds and therefore meets our policy. The young people in the Kirks ad are 12 years or over (as per our policy) when they were filmed for this ad. We checked this with the agency that hired them on our behalf.

Click on the images below for the first in a series of Brand and Sport profiles. Feel the synergy:

*Tomorrow: the experts say it’s not OK. This stuff is making us fat.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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