Targeting school children in marketing campaigns for sports supplements: Is it ethical?

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Posted 31 May 2016

On 17 April 2016, the journalist, Elaine Swanepoel drew our attention in the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, Die Rapport, to USN targeting and marketing to sport supplements to children. Bizarrely, according to the report: “Yet says Albe Geldenhuys, head of USN, to Die Rapport, that primary school children should not under any circumstances be using supplements”. The text of this article, and commentary, is reproduced here.

In the South African Sports Medicine Association (SASMA) May 2016 newsletter, the selling of sports supplements to schoolchildren is addressed.

“SASMA considers such aggressive marketing as highly irresponsible, dangerous and somewhat unethical as the youth who are involved in the schooling system are vulnerable targets”

Targeting school children in marketing campaigns for sports supplements: Is it ethical?

In April 2016 it was brought to SASMA’s attention through a media release published on Netwerk 24*, that a campaign had been launched by a supplement company marketing their products to school children. The campaign takes the form of a competition, in which schools sign up to become agents for selling the company’s supplements. Points are awarded for selling specific supplements, as well as hosting of certain promotional events publicising the company’s supplements. In terms of the release, it was envisaged that the more supplements that were sold the more points would be awarded, and the school selling the most supplements/or with the most points at the end of the competition period would win a concert worth R100 000.

The campaign has sparked much debate and raised many questions about the ethics of supplement sponsorship for school sport. In response to this campaign, SASMA has issued a position statement emphasising that SASMA does not support the use of supplements in healthy children. The full position statement is available on P3 of this newsletter.

As with any contentious issue, there are proponents and opponents in the debate. Opponents argue that children are “vulnerable consumers” and recognise that direct marketing creates expectations about a brand and also influences consumer behahiour in the short and long term. They argue that direct marketing of supplements in schools sends the message that supplements are needed in order to perform well in sport. Another of their concerns is the danger that children will become “hooked” on supplements from a young age exposing them to a number of risks – when use is not necessarily justified to start with.

Proponents will argue that if children have legal rights allowing them to exercise free will about medical/surgical procedures from as young as 12 years old, then they are not vulnerable and should also be allowed to exercise free will about their choice of “nutrition”. Proponents may also emphasis the legal framework governing marketing and advertising to children, and argue that if campaigns are conducted according to these guidelines then they should be allowed. There is also the reality of the tough economic climate and the recognition that sponsorships have become increasingly lean and scarce. Organisations may feel pressure to take what they can get from whomever they get it, in order to be able to propel forward.

Despite being called to account**, at the time of publication of this newsletter, it seemed that the campaign was still going ahead. SASMA considers such aggressive marketing as highly irresponsible, dangerous and somewhat unethical as the youth who are involved in the schooling system are vulnerable targets in that they may choose to participate in sport and be under the impression that the relevant supplements have been approved and endorsed by WADA, SAIDS and SASCOC. Please be advised that neither WADA, SAIDS, SASCOC or SASMA have endorsed any supplement products.

* http://www.netwerk24.com/Nuus/Algemeen/sportdoepa-by-skole-wek-vrae-20160416

*** http://www.camcheck.co.za/usn-selling-sport-supplements-to-children/

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