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Big Food and corporate social responsibility: marketing or public good? 

Study explores parents’ and children’s perceptions of junk food sponsorship of junior sport and community activities.

While exposure to junk food marketing can create a desire in children to eat unhealthy foods, research undertaken at the University of Wollongong (UOW) is the first to explore how Big Food’s (large fast food and sugary sweetened beverage multinationals) corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs shape how parents and children feel towards those companies.

Companies say activities such as sponsoring junior sport and environmental programs are a way for corporations to give back to the community and contribute to social good. However, public health experts have questioned the motives of Big Food companies and fear that CSR could be contributing to childhood obesity by creating positive associations with unhealthy products and brands.

Previous studies have explored why Big Food companies undertake CSR strategies, and public health critiques of these strategies, but very few have explored the publics’ views, said the study’s lead author Ms Zoe Richards, a PhD candidate from UOW’s School of Health and Society. The study is currently accessible online in “first view” in Public Health Nutrition.

“We thought it was really important to see how the community feels about these activities – particularly parents and children – who we know are the main groups exposed to many of the strategies,” Ms Richards said.

The researchers undertook qualitative interviews with children aged 8-12 years old and their parents to understand their recognition and reactions to a range of advertisements showing CSR strategies of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nestle (three companies with extensive CSR programs).

Interestingly, results showed high awareness of CSR activities in both parents and children, but mixed feelings about the value and motivations of the strategies.

“Some parents and children felt quite positive about Big Food companies sponsoring valued services such as sports or health services – and felt this was a sign that companies were moral and good corporate citizens. Others were dubious about the motives of companies and worried about the impact on children, so there was a real conflict between those that valued the services and those that felt it was important to protect the exposure of children to the marketing that came with them,” Ms Richards said.

“While there is a lot of pressure on Big Food to restrict traditional advertising to children, CSR enables them to be present in children’s settings, in community centres and sports clubs … and gives them an opportunity to build brand value with children from a very young age.

“That's of concern because children don't have the critical thinking skills to recognise they're being marketed to. Is this really just direct marketing to children under the guise of philanthropy or are companies attempting to do the right thing by the community – that’s the critical question.”

Results from this study confirmed that CSR cuts through with both parents and children. They recognise the activities and in some ways have begun to accept them as a normal part of community life. What is less clear is how to deal with the conflict in parents’ views about the appropriateness of these activities and the contribution they may be having to children’s beliefs about Big Food and its place in their lives.

“I hope the study leads to greater awareness and debate about the role of CSR in the community,” Ms Richards said.

“This is an issue that needs to be raised at the community level and it’s important for people to start being critical of companies’ CSR activities in the same way they are of more traditional forms of marketing. At the end of the day, companies are responsible for increasing profits, not protecting the public’s health.”

The research article, ‘Are Big Food’s corporate social responsibility strategies valuable to communities? A qualitative study with parents and children’ by Zoe Richards and her PhD supervisor Lyn Phillipson will be published in Public Health Nutrition. The research was conducted with the support of the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.