The impact of unhealthy food sponsorship vs. pro-health sponsorship models on young adults' food preferences: A randomised controlled trial
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Background: Unhealthy foods are promoted heavily, through food company sponsorship of elite sport, resulting in extensive exposure among young adults who are avid sport spectators. This study explores the effects of sponsorship of an elite sporting event by: (A) non-food brands (control), (B) unhealthy food brands, (C) healthier food brands, or (D) an obesity prevention public health campaign on young adults' brand awareness, attitudes, image perceptions, event-sponsor fit perceptions, and preference for food sponsors' products. Methods: A between-subjects web-based experiment was conducted, consisting of four sponsorship conditions (A through D) featuring three product categories within each condition. Australian adults (N = 1132) aged 18-24 years were recruited via a national online panel. Participants viewed promotional videos and news stories about an upcoming international, multi-sport event (with sponsor content edited to reflect each condition), completed a distractor task, and then answered questions assessing the response variables. Regression analyses were conducted to test for differences by sponsorship condition on the respective outcome measures. Results: Compared to the control condition, unhealthy food sponsorship promoted higher awareness of, and more favourable attitudes towards, unhealthy food sponsor brands. Unhealthy food sponsorship also led to greater perceived event-sponsor fit and transfer of perceptions of the sporting event to the unhealthy food sponsor brands, relative to the control group. Exposure to sponsorship for healthier foods produced similar sponsorship effects for healthier food sponsor brands, as well as prompting a significant increase in the proportion of young adults showing a preference for these products. Obesity prevention campaign sponsorship promoted higher campaign awareness and perceived event-sponsor fit, but did not impact food attitudes or preference for unhealthy versus healthier foods. Conclusion: Findings suggest that restricting elite sport sponsorship to healthier food brands that meet set nutritional criteria could help promote healthier eating among young adults. Sporting organisations should be encouraged to seek sponsorship from companies who produce healthier food brands and government-funded social marketing campaigns. Clinical trial registration: Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry (ANZCTR) registration number ACTRN12618000368235. Retrospectively registered 12 March 2018.
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