Alcohol branding taking over sports

Alcohol still being heavily promoted in sports – despite laws designed to curb the marketing of a harmful product  

Almost a quarter of alcohol ads in the sports area during leading rugby matches in Ireland were deemed to be promoting ‘regular strength’ alcohol product

New research analysing alcohol brand references in or on the sporting area in rugby found that alcohol marketing continues to feature – despite Ireland’s laws prohibiting alcohol advertising in these places.

The analysis, by researchers from the Institute of Social Marketing and Health at the University of Stirling and published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science, examined how Section 15 of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act is being adhered to in recent fixtures played in Ireland during the 2021/2022 European Rugby Champions Cup and the 2022 Six Nations Championship. 

The study found that alcohol branding continued to appear in or on the sporting area during leading club and international rugby union matches after Section 15 had been commenced on 12 Nov 2021. 

In terms of frequency, the study found that an alcohol brand reference appeared in the sporting area on average once every 17 seconds in highlights of the match versus Wales. In highlights of the semi-final of Leinster vs. Stade Toulousain, a brand reference appeared in the sporting area once every 8 seconds.

Most references were for brand variants with zero alcohol, albeit incorporating similar brand iconography to their ‘regular strength’ counterparts, such as brand names and logos.  

However, approximately a quarter of references were deemed to be promoting a ‘regular strength’ alcohol product, as the brand logos were presented without explicit reference to the zero-alcohol variants. This is known as alibi marketing –  the practice of using features that are synonymous with the brand, for example, the Guinness ‘gold harp’ brand logo on a black background and the red Heineken star. Such references mostly appeared on flags and flagpoles that marked the edge of the pitch.

The study only looked at references in the sporting area and did not analyse the myriad other forms of marketing observed in the videos including:(i) advertising boards around the pitch border/stadium; (ii) branded clothing worn by players; (iii) advertising on electronic screens (e.g. scoreboards); (iv) supporters with branded merchandise or packaging; (v) graphics superimposed onto videos; and (vi) branding in the video descriptions. As such, this study only provides a conservative estimate of exposure to alcohol marketing during these high-profile matches.

AAI CEO Dr Sheila Gilheany said: 

Alcohol sports marketing is known to be a powerful tool to increase alcohol consumption. Ireland’s Public Health Alcohol Act sought to put some curbs on such marketing, yet even these very modest restrictions are being circumvented. The viewing public, which includes large numbers of children, are being exposed to saturation levels of alcohol brand marketing.  

In addition, as the research authors point out, zero-alcohol brand variants are also being advertised in other areas prohibited under the Act such as on public transport. Will this also be the case when the broadcast watershed for alcohol advertising is finally introduced? It is time for Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, to examine this issue and stand up for this government’s policy which aims to reduce exposure to alcohol marketing, particularly to children.

Ireland’s Act prohibits direct and indirect advertising for an alcohol product, including through brand names and logos. The researchers, however, note there remains uncertainty about how this applies to non-alcoholic offerings. They conclude: 

Currently, however, it is unclear whether the display of shared brand iconography in advertising for zero-alcohol variants meets the threshold to “reasonably be regarded” as a recommendation of an [alcohol] product to the public. This remains a matter for Ireland’s judicial authorities to determine.


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Full research paper here.