independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Alcohol sponsorship of sport

Alcohol sponsorship of sport is the keystone for a wide range of alcohol marketing activity in Ireland.

An array of marketing activities are used to leverage the link between alcohol, sports and elite athletes, which ultimately drives consumption of alcohol. Advertising “activates” the sports sponsorship to increase sales.

A ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport would decelerate the relentless promotion of alcohol in Ireland and diminish the overall potency of alcohol advertising, thereby reducing alcohol consumption.

The purpose of marketing is to create a need or desire for a product. Alcohol is not a staple, it is not a necessary purchase, therefore a market must be created for it – and new drinkers must be recruited to create and expand that market.

While the Drinks Ireland (formerly Alcohol Beverage Federation Ireland) claims that “there is no link between sponsorship and alcohol consumption”, Diageo, sponsor of Irish rugby and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), attributes sales increases directly to sports sponsorship activity in its annual reporting and Carlsberg, sponsor of the FAI, in recent annual reports, have stated that “ultimately, sponsorships are about growing our business and driving the long-term sales of our beer brands”.

There is clearly one message for policymakers and another for shareholders, but it is the latter whose interests the alcohol industry is working for and protecting. Our legislators must do the same for the public health.

To suggest that sports sponsorship is not linked to sales of alcohol or has no influence on the beliefs and drinking behaviour of Irish people, particularly children and young people, not only lacks evidence and credibility, it also flies in the face of logic and common sense.

By allowing alcohol producers access to the world of sport and its emotive landscape of success and failure enables alcohol brands shape relations with future consumers on a fundamental appreciation of human understanding.

The Public Health Alcohol Act, following the innovative policy framing of the ‘Loi Evin’ framework in France (1991), makes specific provision for what can only be ultilised in future alcohol advertising – Section12, Content of Advertising, would, if commenced, deprive alcohol advertisers, the oxygen of a rich vein of human emotion and interaction so pronounced in youth centred activities such as sport, popular art and culture.

Pairing a healthy activity, such as sport, with an unhealthy product, such as alcohol, makes that product seem less unhealthy and more acceptable and normal. It creates a culture where children and young people perceive alcohol consumption as a normal everyday part of life and see it as something associated with having fun and sporting success.

It is entirely contradictory that a society with the second highest level of binge drinking in the world and where three people die every day from an alcohol-related illness is supine with regard to this aspect of alcohol promotion.

It is vital that we legislate comprehensively to regulate the promotion of alcohol including a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport, which is a powerful and sophisticated influence on young people’s drinking behaviour and expectations, increasing the likelihood that they will start to use alcohol at an earlier age and to drink more if they are already using alcohol.

It is not just supported by the evidence, it is the right thing to do.

Read an in-depth analysis of this issue through Alcohol Action Ireland’s submission to a “Working Group on Regulating Sponsorship by Alcohol Companies of Major Sporting Events”.

Alibi marketing  

‘Alibi marketing’ is the practice of a brand using trademarks and/or slogans that are synonymous with it, without actually using the conventional brand name or logo. With alibi marketing, although the company name isn’t used, by virtue of the use of particular distinguishing features of the brand, consumers will instantly recognise what brand is being advertised. For example, during the UEFA EURO 2016 football tournament, lead sponsor Carlsberg only used their slogan “Probably…the best in the world” on the advertising hoardings around the pitch, with the text presented in the same font and colours as used for their main brand name.  The practice of alibi marketing has been used elsewhere, for example to circumvent a ban on tobacco advertising in Formula One.

This strategy has more recently been adopted by alcohol marketers in France where a law, the Loi Évin, places restrictions on alcohol advertisers. Loi Évin restrictions meant that the competition referred to as ‘The Heineken Cup’ could no longer be called as such in France. The brand somewhat circumvented this by branding it in as the ‘H Cup’ in France, and by ensuring all pitch-side advertising reflected this change. The advertising however, still maintained brand recognition by using the Heineken branding of a red star on a green background.

In Ireland, following the passage of the PHAA and the enactment of measures in 2019 to prohibit advertising of alcohol within 200m of a school, playground, or early years services, and on trains and buses and in the cinema, some alcohol brands began advertising zero alcohol beers, essentially still advertising the brand, albeit a different product.

AAI believes this very much goes against the spirit of the law, and that alcohol brands are using loopholes and ‘alibi marketing’ tactics to circumvent public health legislation.

In respect of the Public Health Alcohol Act in Ireland, AAI would argue that the definition of advertising used in the Act should be sufficiently broad to prevent alibi marketing. The legislation’s definition of “advertisement” (s. 2 of the PHAA) states that for the purposes of that Act, advertising means – any form of commercial communication intended to promote an alcohol product, whether directly or indirectly, including trademarks, emblems, marketing images and logos making reference to the product.