Johnnie Walker’s recent F1 sponsorship renewal announcement raises the perennial question of the morality of alcohol brand’s sponsoring sport events which have a significant under 18’s fan base, and how government may regulate against it. Having previously managed sponsorships for two of the larger global alcohol producers (Heineken and Pernod Ricard) I feel well placed to provide insight on the issue. Regulation of the UK’s alcohol industry has been high on the political agenda for a while, from minimum pricing to advertising restrictions, some form of regulation seems inevitable. When the economy is fully back on its feet its safe to assume there will be regulation, the question is should this extend to sponsorship?
I do not believe that regulation of alcohol brands in sponsorship will address any of the under-age drinking issue. Placing a perimeter board at a sports ground without any activation support will achieve very little amongst the brand’s target consumer, let alone minors. Relevant and engaging activation around any sponsorship targeted specifically at a brand’s consumers is what achieves cut through and results. Therefore as long as the respective alcohol brand is ensuring that their activation is fully focused on those above leading drinking age then there shouldn’t be an issue. Some will point to the fact that minors will still be exposed to the alcohol brands, whilst one can’t disagree I would argue that it is simply impossible to completely shield mainstream brands from children and even if this were achievable it would turn alcohol products into the forbidden fruit which in the long term is far more dangerous. We live in a society where alcohol is accepted and, in the majority of cases, consumed responsibly, therefore education is the key to protecting children from the dangers of alcohol rather than completely hiding it from them.
Let us assume that there were a complete ban on alcohol sponsorship in the UK, I believe that there would be two far more serious implications on children;
- Whilst there will be a serious financial impact within elite sport (there are very few professional sports that wouldn’t be affected), grassroots sport will ultimately suffer the most. Virtually every grassroots sports club in the country will have had some form of brewery sponsorship investment at some stage. Often this can be the difference between profit and loss, so can we really afford for more amateur sporting facilities to be lost? Wouldn’t a reduction in children’s access to sporting facilities have a greater negative impact on their long term wellbeing at a time when exercise levels are falling so dramatically anyway?
- A ban on alcohol sponsorship will impact the attractiveness of the UK being a destination for global sporting events. Our current tax laws make the UK unattractive for some big events coming to this country anyway, another barrier could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Champions League, Euro and World Cup finals, F1 Grand Prix and Rugby World Cup (to name just a few) all have big alcohol sponsors, will the rights holders really be queuing up to come back under these restrictions? I doubt it and I would argue that the big events on our doorstep are what really inspire us all, especially children, to take up sport; just look at the current resurgence of cycling in this country post the London Olympic successes.
However, whilst I don’t believe there should be regulation, the sponsorship and alcohol industries also need to start helping themselves and be pro-active with their approach to responsibility issues in order to avoid seriously restrictive regulation. I do not believe in restrictions but there are some events where brands need to take responsibility and actively stay away in order to demonstrate their CSR credentials to government and their moral obligation to society. I experienced one example of the disregard of these issues when initially discussing Heineken’s sponsorship of the 2012 Olympics with LOCOG. During one meeting I questioned the brand fit given that the whole games mantra was to ‘inspire a generation’ (who were not of legal drinking age). The response from LOCOG was fascinating, ‘Lord Coe enjoys having a beer watching sport so we don’t see an issue’. Given the positioning of the London Games, neither party should have entered into this agreement. The games were positioned to positively impact young people’s lives therefore the brand fit, let alone the moral issue, with an alcohol brand was completely wrong, beer brands shouldn’t have been anywhere near the event. Heineken went onto sponsor the Olympics however they and LOCOG should have recognised and respected their responsibilities. (I hasten to add that the Heineken London 2012 Olympic deal was agreed after I had left the business.) I would like to clarify that I am not contradicting my initial point as I believe that the impact of Heineken’s London Olympic sponsorship to those under legal drinking age would have been negligible, however the industry has to actively demonstrate its responsibility obligations more deliberately to government, and wider society, if it wants to avoid regulation.
So in conclusion, I strongly believe that alcohol brands should not be prohibited from sponsoring sporting events as this will not halt the UK’s alcohol issues and in fact will have a far more negative impact on the health of young people. However the industry needs to help itself in order to ensure that potentially serious regulation doesn’t extend as far as sponsorship. The extent of regulation is in their hands, they will have no grounds for complaint unless they embark on a strong morally driven leadership position in this territory.