New study shows how beverage companies target children through marketing contracts with universities

University of California, Irvine and Pepsi Beverage Company contract

WASHINGTON – Beverage company marketing contracts with universities often contain provisions targeting children under 18 years old, according to a new article published in Preventive Medicine Reports. The study investigated university pouring rights contracts (PRCs), which grant beverage companies the exclusive right to sell, market, and/or advertise their products on campuses. The authors obtained 139 contracts from 132 large, public universities and found that 22 (16 percent) contained a total of 25 provisions related to youth-targeted marketing. 

“The main problem with pouring rights contracts is that they financially incentivize colleges and universities to get their students to overconsume a drink that harms their health,” said Katie Marx, CSPI policy coordinator and co-author of the study. “That’s bad enough. But what this first-of-its-kind research shows is that pouring rights contracts are also often designed to expose children—much younger than college students—to sugary drink marketing.” 

Of the 22 contracts with youth-targeted marketing provisions, six contracts were with Coca-Cola, 14 with Pepsi, and two with Gatorade (whose parent company is Pepsi). The authors identified four types of youth-targeted provisions: advertising at or support for youth summer camps (15 contracts); free experiences for youth at university athletic events (5 contracts); advertising at high school athletic events (3 contracts); and in-kind or monetary support for programs for disadvantaged/underprivileged youth (2 contracts). 

According to the authors, company sponsorship of camps, events, and other programs can lead to “brand image transfer,” where kids’ excitement for the event or program is transferred to the sponsor (the beverage company). The sponsorship of camps, events, and programs may similarly create positive attitudes towards sugary drinks in youth. 

Children and youth may be particularly vulnerable to marketing due to their inability to detect the persuasive intent of advertising, tendency to mirror peer behaviors, and proclivity to impulsive decisions, according to previous research. 

However, the U.S. government has done little to restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods like soda to youth. Instead, the food industry has formed the voluntary Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in 2006 “to help address the challenge of childhood obesity."  

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are among 19 food and beverage companies that have pledged to only advertise products that meet CFBAI’s nutrition criteria when children under age 12 comprise 30 percent or more of the audience. CFBAI prohibits marketing beverages to kids with more than five grams of sugar, but universities are not a covered setting. One 12-ounce can of Coke contains 39 grams of added sugar. 

“Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other beverage companies should stand by their commitments to voluntarily reduce youth-targeted sugary drink marketing,” said Eva Greenthal, senior science policy associate at CSPI and co-author of the study. “They shouldn’t be finding loopholes in their own self-regulatory policies and marketing to youth through uncovered settings like sports camps and athletic events.”  

The study authors recommend additional research on pouring rights contracts at smaller and non-U.S. universities, the health impact of removing sugar-sweetened beverages from campus communities, and the financial impact on universities of alternatives to existing pouring rights contracts. They also recommend research on the potential adverse effects of altering the contracts on historically disenfranchised youth and how those effects could be mitigated. 

Marx and Greenthal co-authored the paper with Sara Ribakove, senior policy associate at CSPI, and Elyse Grossman, Stephanie Lucas, Martha Ruffin, and Sara Benjamin-Neelon of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.