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Candy and charity: Not so sweet a deal? Add to ...

Last month, the Children's Miracle Network, which raises money for 14 children's hospitals in Canada, partnered with Pizza Pizza under a promotion to donate a portion of pizza sales to the fundraising organization.

Every fall, Burger King sells paper bears in its restaurants, with proceeds going to Toronto's SickKids Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Hospital for Sick Children.

This past Halloween, the Children's Wish Foundation of Canada allowed its logo to be placed on specially-marked packages of Mars brand candy, with some proceeds going to the charity.

While co-operation between charities and corporate sponsors isn't new, the nature of those relationships has been shifting recently as a more companies that sell candy, fast food and other unhealthy products join forces with charities to build complex partnerships that often connect product sales to the size of donations.

The emerging trend is raising alarm among a growing number of public health experts and consumer advocates who are worried about what they see as the disappearing line between philanthropy and product promotion.

"It's a creative way to make advertising of their product," said Suzie Pellerin, director of Coalition Poids, a Montreal-based organization that opposes marketing of unhealthy food to children. "They sell junk food and they want to have a nice image."

Partnerships between food companies and charities are coming under increasing scrutiny after the medical journal The Lancet published an editorial earlier this week criticizing UNICEF Canada for its relationship with Cadbury.

UNICEF Canada entered a three-year partnership with Cadbury Adams Canada Inc. that allowed the company to use its logo on millions of candy products a year in exchange for $500,000 to help build schools in Africa.

The Lancet editorial accused UNICEF Canada of selling out its values and showing a major judgment error by lending its logo to a company that makes high-fat, high-sugar products.

But they're hardly alone. Charities across Canada have similar relationships with corporate sponsors, allowing companies to use their names and logos to sell products.

Last year, Cadbury held an online contest that allowed customers to enter Universal Product Codes (the individual number) from purchased Cadbury products for the chance to win money. The company also pledged to donate a lump sum to one of a group of charities, including the David Suzuki Foundation, World Vision and the Canadian Cancer Society.

Every year, Dairy Queen holds a "Miracle Treat Day" under which it donates all proceeds from Blizzards sold that day to the Children's Miracle Network.

Ted Garrard, president and CEO of the SickKids Foundation, said corporate partnerships don't imply endorsement, adding that his organization has ties to retailers, banks, food companies and other sponsors. Consumers have the final say over the products they choose to purchase, he said.

"I think at the end of the day, we are trying to generate resources for the hospital and we are, through that, not necessarily condoning a particular choice … Our objective here is to not endorse products," Mr. Garrard said.

Paul St-Germain, director of communications at the Children's Wish Foundation of Canada, which has had a long-standing relationship with Burger King, said he doesn't believe such partnerships encourage people to consume junk food.

"I think the concept of embedded giving has been around for a few years and it's an increasing trend," he said. "Any corporation that seeks to be a good corporate citizen by developing partnerships with the charitable sector, personally, I think they firstly deserve recognition for doing so."

But critics say charities lend implicit endorsement to companies they align themselves with, which can help sell more products or increase public support for a company's brand.

"I think that trying to buy credibility has long been something that food companies and products that are questionable will try to do," said Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute and an outspoken advocate on nutrition issues.

Dr. Freedhoff said charities should be much more cautious of the types of partnerships they create because they risk losing credibility in the eyes of the public and may unwittingly help companies sell unhealthy food.

"[Companies]don't throw away billions of dollars because those ads don't work," Dr. Freedhoff said. "I think society is in a massive state of denial when they apologize for those types of partnerships."

Follow on Twitter: @carlyweeks

 

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