There is no doubt that marketing plays an influential role in shaping how we think about and consume different products. Products are promoted through numerous different channels across both traditional and new media platforms.
However, not all marketing is equal. Some forms of marketing occur via partnerships with powerful social agencies within communities – thus amplifying the impact of the message.
The sponsorship of sporting organisations is a vehicle for promoting products such as alcohol or gambling allows brands to reach massive audiences, and also bypassing some of the restrictions that relate to the commercial break advertising of products.
Sports sponsorship is a particularly pervasive form of advertising, because of the way in which marketing for a product becomes embedded into the rituals and symbols associated with the game. Think about sporting matches. Logos for brands on the field, on player jumpers, around goal posts, are all by-in-large attributed to sponsorship. And, with the financial might of the contributions of these brands to sport, they are proving increasingly difficult to remove.
Despite widespread calls for the regulation of unhealthy product sponsorship in sport, these industries still argue that they do not ‘directly’ target children via their advertising. Yet children still watch sport and are exposed to the same messages that adults see.
Some argue that children are particularly vulnerable to sponsorship because they may associate the sponsor as something positively linked to the team. Children often idolise sporting players and can have the view that players are endorsing sponsoring products. This is a toxic mix when we consider that such relationships between sport and tobacco positively influenced children’s attitudes and brand preferences.
So what is the impact of this exposure? Do kids take in sponsors messages implicitly, and if so, to what extent?
In 2014 we conducted a study aimed at answering these questions.
We asked 5-12 year olds in New South Wales to complete an activity where they were presented with two sets of magnets: (1) sporting teams from four Australian codes, and (2) product logos.
Children were told to arrange magnets in the order they deemed most appropriate and were also asked to indicate the teams and brands they ‘liked the most’. The sporting teams included in the study consisted of two teams sponsored by alcohol brands, two sponsored by junk food brands, one sponsored by a casino, one sponsored by a bank, and one sponsored by an insurance company.
Our results showed that about one fifth of children in the study correctly associated alcohol sponsor Victoria Bitter (VB) with Rugby League’s State of Origin Blues, and almost half of children placed at least one alcohol brand logo next to the State of Origin Blues team logo.
Furthermore, over 80 per cent of children in the study placed at least one alcohol brand logo next to a National Rugby League (NRL) team logo. Similarly, for gambling, almost 60 per cent of children placed at least one gambling brand logo next to an NRL team.
One in five children chose either an alcohol or gambling brand as one of their ‘most liked’ brands.
It should be a concern for the community that children indicated clear preferences for and high associations between the NRL and its teams, and alcohol and gambling products.
There is a clear ethical tension between the sponsorship provided by alcohol and gambling brands to the NRL, and the promotion of the NRL as a game that families should watch.
This study shows that if the aim of sponsors is to build brand awareness for alcohol and gambling products for kids, then it appears to be working.
We know that sporting codes have the potential to have a powerfully positive influence on the health and social wellbeing of communities. We also know that alcohol and gambling cause significant social costs to communities.
It’s time for sporting organisations to play their role in preventing alcohol and gambling harm. Backing away from sponsorship relationships with these products will be a step in the right direction.