The Olympics and Its Stars Pimp for Junk Food
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Maybe you thought that junk food and soft drinks would take a hike during the Olympics, the world’s largest celebration of bodies at the peak of health and fitness. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. McDonald’s and Coca Cola are almost as ubiquitous as the five rings up here in Vancouver.
We’re drowning in evidence of the detrimental effects of soft drinks, and being crushed under the weight of research about the consequences of junk food. Yet these Olympics seem to be setting records for the number of billboards and TV commercials selling sugar-filled and empty calorie food and drink. And also for the number of athletes shilling them, and even equating them with national pride. If you believe what you see and hear, you’d think junk food and soft drinks are the stuff Olympic and other dreams are made of.
In one McDonald’s TV commercial, played dozens of times, for example, snowboarder Brad Martin says he “gives into temptation” to eat French fries every chance he gets. To him, that’s a “golden moment.” Martin is sponsored by McDonald’s.
One local pediatrician, Dr. Tom Warshawki, recently spoke out on CBC against the trend, saying that the Olympics might promote physical activity among young people, but that doesn’t make up for the potential harm of sweet drinks and fast food. In fact, the value those companies bring to society through athletic sponsorships is far less than what their products cost the health care system.
He said, "We know that it's very, very difficult to exercise off the calories of all these foods.” A 13-year-old boy who drank a 591-ml soft drink, for example, would have to jog for 50 minutes to burn off the 260 calories the drink contains.
Kids don’t just tune these ads out, or react in horror as some of us do; instead, he said that seeing Olympic athletes eat or drink certain products is persuasive: "Kids tend to eat while they watch and what they watch.” Junk food and soft drinks may be bad for us, but when athletes promote them, people, especially kids, consume them.
And those ads are everywhere. Vancouver itself is drowning a sea of red and white. Partly because those are our national colors, but partly because surfaces, screens, tents and signs are adorned with Coca Cola. But more importantly, the box is too. Olympic TV commercials are kind of like Super Bowl ads except in the Games, ads are a marathon, not a sprint: the same Olympic ones get played again and again, sometimes hundreds of times. The irony is that many of the TV ads in this marathon promote food and drink that would make running, or any kind of activity, hard if not impossible.
Snowboarder Brad Martin is one athlete selling McDonalds, and making it seem like McDonald’s food is key to his success. Everytime I see him smiling with his fries, I think of Supersize Me, and how I don’t exactly associate McDonald’s with peak physical performance. Under one story about the ads, a commenter said, “Show me an athlete that eats at McDonalds and I'll show you an athlete that isn't going to add to his or her country's medal count!”
And under another, a commenter wrote, “What a JOKE! McDonald's commercials with our STAR athletes CHOWING down on a breakfast McMuff. Yea, right.... That'll get you on the podium, in a weight gaining competition!!!!! Fatter, Swifter, Heavier???????”
It’s not just McDonald’s and Coke in the game. There’s an ad for Kraft Dinner that I’ve seen dozens of times, featuring Kraft Dinner pledge. Cute, healthy kids and adults promise, in a patriotic style, promise to eat their “KD” and even lick the plate. One tweeter wrote, “The Kraft Dinner "Pledge" commercial is well done. It's a shame it's basically poison.”