With the debate over the pros and cons of alcohol sponsorship rarely out of the industry and mainstream news, the European Sponsorship Association (ESA) continues to take an active role in consulting with and representing the industry at local and European government level. It has recently reported the findings of its large-scale survey of rights holders to the EC, and the industry is now awaiting to hear in the autumn from the Director General for Health and Consumers, who has been taking evidence and consulting on all sides of the debate.
The big question, of course, is whether the issues of alcohol sponsorship and binge drinking are inter-related, and whether the industry can survive calls for external regulation. Is it facing European-wide legislative control, as happened with tobacco marketing, or will responsible marketing, codes of practice and co-operation with local governments ensure its survival?
Last year, the beer sector contributed some US$565m to the total global sponsorship investment pot, ranking it the fourth highest sponsoring industry in terms of investment (source, TWSM). Indeed, the beer brand, Budweiser was ranked the fifth largest sponsor in sponsorship commitment, pouring a reported US$131,250,000 investment into its sponsored activities. This positioned it above brands including BP, Emirates, Sony and O2.
Unsurprisingly, with sponsorship investments of these proportions, the alcohol industry has been keen to protect its position and investments. At a time when latest figures show that 24% of adults in England are classified hazardous drinkers and the cost of alcohol related harm to the NHS is £2.7 million, brands have taken significant voluntary steps to promote responsible drinking, and in some instances, to use their sponsorships as a vehicle for conveying messages of sensible drinking.
For example, for any new football team sponsorship deals, alcohol branding on children’s replica shirts is now not allowed by the drinks body, The Portman Group. Indeed, some brands were a step ahead of the timing of such prohibitions, with Carling, sponsor of both Celtic and Rangers offering children’s replica shirts without branding before the restrictions were implemented.
Alcohol brands have also been active in joining with the UK Government on social sponsorship campaigns. For example, the UK Dept of Transport’s THINK! campaign joined with Bacardi Martini, to support the brand’s PR link, using Michael Schumacher as an ambassador, with a joint promotion of responsible drinking at Grand Prix.
Elsewhere, Carlsberg was seen to use its UEFA football sponsorship to convey a responsible drinking message: ‘Carlsberg supports fair play on and off the pitch. Please drink responsibly’ within stadia and on fan park cups. Tennants, the owners of the T in the Park music festival, gives half of its signage free to the Drinkaware Trust, as part of their social responsibility programme.
But will these voluntary steps be enough to stave off legislative intervention? The EC is looking very closely at the issue through its Alcohol and Health Forum, the objectives of which include the creation of an action plan to protect children and young people, investigation into scientific evidence, and to consider self-regulation as a means to increase responsible commercial alcohol communication and sales.
As part of ESA’s commitment to the Forum, and in conjunction with Comperio Research, its wide-reaching survey of European rights-holders was conducted to gain insight into practice and attitudes towards alcohol sponsorship. ESA was keen to discover the extent to which rights holders hold concerns over alcohol sponsorship, together with the extent of any measures, voluntary or otherwise, in place to regulate such activity and protect these important revenue streams.
The results clearly indicate that many rights holders have their own internal procedures to set the nature and extent of their partnerships with alcohol brands, and do not wish for additional legislative control. Many assess alcohol sponsorship on a case-by-case basis, with some banning it along the lines of unsuitability or the target age of their audience.
The majority of respondents indicated that they would prefer to self-regulate their partnerships under guidelines by an industry body, such as the European Sponsorship Association, rather than an external body unrelated to the marketing sector or through legislation.
Restrictions on alcohol sponsorship, or more critically, a blanket ban would see many rights-holders struggle to fill the void left by alcohol brands’ investments. Indeed, around half of the organisations surveyed, said they would be affected if legal restrictions were imposed upon alcohol sponsorships; significantly more for those with current alcohol sponsorship deals.
As Jennifer Davies, Development Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra puts it: “For UK arts organisations that are experiencing diminishing subsidy and a critical reliance on a limited pool of private donors, alcohol sponsorships can make the difference between a successful fundraising campaign, or one that does not cover its costs. And private fundraising is key to an arts organisation’s survival.”
So, what does the future hold for alcohol sponsorship? Can the drinks brands and the rights-holders who rely upon their support, steer a mutually responsible path to ensure its survival free of legislative control? Will the current approach of the EC, which is encouraging self-regulation to see if this helps address the problem, prevail, or will national governments decide to impose their own legislative restrictions?
The industry, in particular the rights holders, as well as the sponsors themselves, need to be vigilant in ensuring that alcohol sponsorships are professionally managed. Not only must they guarantee that no promotions are made to under 18 year olds and that all advertising, giveaways, sales and hospitality are managed to the highest level of control, but they must also take positive steps to promote responsible drinking. Abiding by voluntary codes of practice and imposing their own self-regulations, and by managing events so that there are no alcohol-related incidents, is the best way that the industry can demonstrate their awareness of the issue and their responsibility towards it.
Helen Day, Head of European Policy, ESA
 Statistics on Alcohol, England, 2009, The Health and Social Care Information Centre
For further information, or to find out more about ESA’s Policy Group, please contact ESA via firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone +44 (0) 208 390 3311, or contact Helen Day at email@example.com