The giant Coca-Cola Company, which spends $2.5 billion a year on advertising, is repeatedly breaking its promise not to market to children.

Coca-Cola told Crikey in a statement on Monday: “The Coca-Cola Company do not market to children under 12 years of age and this is a strict global policy that has been in place for many years. This policy also stands true for our sports sponsorships.”

But for the past 20 years Coca-Cola has sponsored Little Athletics in New South Wales, which is for kids as young as four.  Coca-Cola also sponsors or has sponsored a variety of junior soccer, cricket and baseball teams around the country for children as young as five, either with Coke or its Powerade brand.

We asked Coca-Cola to explain the Little Athletics breach and a spokesman replied 24 hours later to say they were “still looking into it”.

We also asked the CEO of Little Athletics NSW, Kerry O’Keefe, if there were protocols to avoid Coca-Cola marketing to children under 12. O’Keefe did not return our calls — even though she was in the office — and declined to respond to Crikey’s emails.

Little Athletics in Australia also takes big licks of money from fast-food giant McDonald’s, which gets its logo on every competitor’s bib in return for its “wonderful support”.  McDonald’s, which is the “exclusive fast-food” restaurant for little athletes, is notorious for marketing to children.

Coca-Cola was also at odds to explain why it brands several junior soccer competitions in the US, such as the Powerade Invitational, which has teams as young as under-nine or the Coca-Cola Youth Classic,  which has teams as young as under-11.

But it did have an explanation for supporting North Queensland Soccer’s Under-10 Powerade Challenge.  According to Coca-Cola, it was just a mistake: “(it) was picked up in one of our checks two years ago and subsequently the program was stopped.”

Other “mistakes” that Crikey has discovered include the Lugarno Soccer Club in south Sydney, which has a Powerade Break for its under-12 teams.

Another is the Berri Warriors baseball club in South Australia, which is sponsored by Coca-Cola and runs teams for kids as young as five. Berri Warriors website shows huge billboards spruiking Coca-Cola’s (and Powerade’s) sponsorship.

This particular “mistake” has been going for some time. Berri Warriors told Crikey: “Powerade has sponsored our club for many years, by way of donating free drinks that we sell at local games … We have teams from T-Ball [for 5-9-year-olds] right up to A-grade.’

One of Berri Warriors’ life members, Brad Monaghan, is business development manager in Berri for Coca-Cola Amatil, which makes and supplies Powerade. “He has arranged our sponsorship year after year,” said club secretary Kerri Hissey.

[BWBC told Crikey in May 2011 that they do not sell Coca Cola products at Junior Baseball games and that the sponsorship does not target children. The club also says it has only had junior teams for the last three years.]

What’s extraordinary about all this — apart from Coca-Cola’s poor compliance — is that sponsorship of children’s sport by fast-food and soft-drink companies is entirely unregulated.

On television, advertising unhealthy products to children is restricted by several voluntary codes designed to ensure “responsible” marketing — the National Preventative Health Taskforce has recommended a strict ban up to 9pm — but in kids’ sport it’s open slather.

Every public health expert consulted by Crikey believes this needs to change. “A ban on unhealthy food sponsorship of children’s sport is the most urgent issue,” the Obesity Policy Coalition’s Jane Martin told Crikey. “Following this, there should be a ban on all junk-food sponsorship of sport. When nearly two-thirds of adults and one in four children and adolescents are overweight or obese, we need to put the public’s health first.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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