Children watching sports may be soaking up blanket fast-food advertising campaigns more than expected, according to a fresh study by the University of Western Australia.
Researchers there have demonstrated for the first time the subconscious effects of multi-million dollar sports sponsorship messages.
Professor Simone Pettigrew co-authored a paper on the topic which was published recently in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
With her UWA colleagues she designed a study to capture the effects of the likely substantial subconscious effects of alcohol and fast-food manufacturers' efforts to associate their products with healthy sport via sponsorship.
More than 160 children aged from five to 12 were invited to take part in an activity that assessed their conscious and subconscious associations between sporting teams and a range of sponsors.
The kids were recruited at the Perth Royal Show in October 2011 and given a whiteboard with magnets with the logos of sporting clubs and asked to arrange magnets of sponsors wherever they wanted. They were also asked to put gold stars next to the sports or sponsors they liked the best.
More than three-quarters correctly linked at least one sponsor with the right sport, with 54 per cent linking the Eagles with Hungry Jack's. The burger chain was a sponsor of the club since its inception before being removed last year as a major sponsor in favour of Bankwest. It later withdrew as an official partner.
Hungry Jack's, McDonald's and KFC received significantly more gold stars compared to other sponsors, with 25% of "likes" going to Hungry Jack's compared with Smarter than Smoking's 7.3%.
"Given the unstructured nature of the task, the results provide support for the argument that sports sponsorship effectively reaches child audiences," the authors wrote.
"While sponsors may argue that they are not intentionally targeting children, it is clear that their efforts are producing this ‘unintended' consequence and that as a result they should come under closer scrutiny.
"There is potential for children to become confused if healthy lifestyle messages or imagery are promoted by the marketers of unhealthy products. Limiting children's exposure to sponsorship messages of companies promoting unhealthy food and drinks is an important element of public policy efforts to reduce child obesity."
Rosanna Capolingua, chair of Healthway, said the results debunked the notion that children were immune from the effects of sponsorship. Healthway is a WA government body that funded the study and recently sponsored the state’s peak soccer body to the tune of A$930,000 in return for promoting anti-smoking messages and boycotting fast-food chains.
"There has been this denial, that we can have adult sport sponsored by whoever and it doesn't affect kids, but that's not how it works and now we've got clear local evidence," she said.
Have your say: Does this research come as a surprise? Or as a sports fan, do the benefits of team sponsorship outweigh any negative effects of advertising influence? Let us know in the box below.