This summer’s big sports story was, undoubtedly, the London 2012 Olympic Games. But lurking in the background was a growing dispute about the way elite sport is currently funded.
With regard to the Olympics, the debate focused on whether brands like McDonalds and Coke should be allowed to associate themselves with such events. But running in parallel was a sustained attack on the alcohol industry by both the health lobby and the House of Commons Health Select Committee.
The assault began in early July, with the BMA arguing that the alcohol industry should be banned from sponsoring sport and music events to limit the promotion of its products to children and young adults. “Sponsorship,” said the BMA, “usually involves providing money to underwrite the event in return for having a logo prominently displayed or distributed on items such as caps and T-shirts and around the event venue. Children and adults become walking billboards when they wear these.”
The BMA’s intervention was in response to legislation being proposed by the Scottish Labour Party – which the BMA didn’t feel went far enough. But the debate intensified in late July when the House of Commons’ cross-party Health Committee also said tough measures could be required because the alcohol industry is still not doing enough to tackle the fact that there are around 6500 alcohol-related deaths a year in the UK.
While various issues were discussed, the most interesting comments came from committee chairman Stephen Dorrell, who said the industry was not being honest about the motivation for its advertising spend. In a damning observation, he said: “We don’t think the industry has a sufficiently well-developed sense of what it takes to trade responsibly.”
Dorrell’s point strikes right at the heart of the debate about alcohol advertising and sponsorship. While the industry argues that its marketing activity is purely about encouraging brand loyalty or brand switching, Dorrell’s committee shares the health lobby’s view that it also helps recruit new drinkers.
The Committee’s report couldn’t be clearer on this point, criticising the industry’s “implausible” argument that “advertising messages have no effect on public attitudes to alcohol or on consumption. Those involved in advertising alcoholic products should accept that their advertisements contain positive messages about their products and that these messages are supported by considerable economic power.”
The Portman Group, which represents the drinks industry on social responsibility issues, was “deeply disappointed” with the Committee’s conclusions. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it doesn’t believe that the science backs up Dorrell’s contention that there is a link between alcohol advertising and drinker recruitment. Secondly, it believes its members are working hard to tackle the problem identified by the health lobby – via various measures such as its responsible drinking campaign, the removal of alcohol branding from children’s replica sports kits and its unit reduction pledge, which will see a reduction in the alcohol content of leading brands, and the introduction of new lower alcohol products.
But what should sponsorship practitioners and rights holders maker of it all? After all, it’s not just the drinks industry that would be affected if the healthy lobby’s concerns translated into a sponsorship ban. For agencies, the knock-on effect of such an outcome would be the loss of key accounts – an awful thought in the midst of the current recession. Meanwhile at rights holders, it would mean the loss of revenue to hold events, pay wages and finance infrastructure developments.
Well there are two responses. The first is to make sure that they enforce best practice on their respective industries. By behaving proactively, they might encourage a more positive response from policy-makers, thus heading off a total ban.
To its credit, the European Sponsorship Association has started thinking along these lines. Conscious that there is also a threat to alcohol sponsorship at EU level, it has drawn up a set of guidelines for rights holders with regard to alcohol sponsorship.
There are too many measures to mention here, but the point of the guidelines is that they attempt to introduce a notion of best practice with regard to alcohol sponsorship. For example, rights holders are advised to “only allow sponsorship by alcohol companies where the audience is reasonably expected to be adults older than the legal purchase age” and to “encourage responsible consumption with their associated organisations, memberships, clubs, participants and supporters.” They should also “respect the choice of consumers not to drink alcohol and should never portray abstinence or moderation negatively.”
The second response is to start thinking about what life beyond alcohol sponsorship might look like. While there’s no guarantee that a ban (either total or partial) will come into force, prudent planning suggests that the industry should instigate a research-based assessment of alternative funding sources. Which brands might step into the breach if there is an alcohol ban? Which industrial categories have avoided sponsorship or been blocked from sponsorship because of the drinks sector’s pre-eminence?
Equally, the industry should start exploring whether relationships with the drinks industry can take other forms. Banning alcohol advertising and sponsorship won’t kill off all forms of commercial partnership (it is not for example a ban on stadia pouring rights or retail promotions). Some attempt should be made to see what kind of relationships would still be acceptable – and also whether the companies in question have other, non-alcohol, brands in their overall group portfolio. This is the kind of thing that the TV industry (via Thinkbox) or Radio (via RAB) would do – and have been doing for many years.
This kind of analysis is not just important for commercial reasons, but also because the sponsorship industry needs
to demonstrate its independence. It can’t allow itself to blindly follow vested interests. Nor can it turn a blind eye to the fact that there is widespread concern about alcohol abuse from a number of areas. Ireland, for example, is considering following the French with its own ban. And twelve of Australia’s national sporting organisations have just turned their backs on alcohol sponsorship by joining a government-funded programme.
None of this is to say that The Portman Group isn’t persuasive in some of its arguments, or that alcohol brands have not been good for sport. But a truly progressive sponsorship sector should be challenging its own presumptions and asking itself whether we are on the verge of an epochal shift in attitudes to alcohol. The Portman Group would like to see research in Loi Evin’s impact, so maybe ESA’s French contingent should consider how that might be done, adding thought leadership to the kind of post-ban commercial analysis advocated above.
What’s clear above all is that the sponsorship industry was smart enough to survive the loss of tobacco sponsorship. So it shouldn’t fear the upheaval caused by an alcohol ban. If anything, it might lead to a welcome shake-up in approach, led by dynamic agency thinking and a new wave of brands.
Alcohol Brands In Sports Sponsorship
The healthy lobby estimates drinks firms spend £800 million a year on marketing their products. Here are a few of the more high profile sponsors to be found in sport. Some also sponsor entertainment events, which could also be affected by a ban.
Budweiser: AB InBev’s lead brand is FIFA World Cup sponsor
Carling: Sponsor of Scottish FA and Scotland Team
Carlsberg: Euro 2012 sponsor and former Liverpool FC sponsor
Diageo: Sponsor of Ryder Cup via Johnnie Walker brand and Six Nations Rugby via Guinness
Heineken: Official Lager of London 2012, Rugby World Cup sponsor, sponsor of the Welsh rugby union team.
Marston’s: Official Beer of the England Cricket Team
Tennent’s: Celtic and Rangers sponsorship deal