Drink Tank

Heineken – the greek god of sport?

Beer has many qualities. Including the ability to blur vision, slur speech, and decrease coordination; none of which are compatible with elite sporting achievement, unless pub billiards has now been included in the program. So why is Heineken one of the major sponsors of the Olympics? I guess the answer to ‘why’ is easy. It comes down to money. Perhaps the better question is ‘Should a product associated with so much health and societal harm be a major sponsor of the world’s largest sporting event?’

And this is no usual sponsorship arrangement. During the Olympics, Heineken will not only be the only beer sold at stadiums, it will also blast its advertisements from screens around major London tube stations, takeover popular websites with blanket ads and bombard social media platforms with its messaging. But the promotions don’t stop there. Heineken is making a play to ‘own’ the spirit of the Olympics by sponsoring hashtags such as ‘#celebratelondon2012’ to direct fans to their website. It’s also recruiting sports fans watching and attending the games to become brand ambassadors by uploading photos of themselves ‘celebrating the Olympics’ to a webpage.

Despite a campaign by UK doctors to highlight the mixed messages of Olympic sponsors such as Heineken, as well as junk-food giants McDonald’s and Coca Cola, the beer brand is unabashed about its significant involvement, and the significance of its involvement. Louise Dennett, UK brand manager for Heineken, was quoted in UK marketing press saying: ‘Our involvement with the Olympics is very much about the celebratory aspect of watching and enjoying the action whilst enjoying a cold Heineken.’ Sure it is.

And this brazen behaviour isn’t isolated to the Olympics and Heineken—alcohol sponsors know they are in a strong position all over the world. In fact, Budweiser is so closely aligned with FIFA, soccer’s governing body, that the body recently demanded alcohol be served at stadiums in Brazil and Qatar during the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, despite laws in those countries forbidding the sale of alcohol. Declaring alcohol consumption during the World Cup to be a non-negotiable issue, FIFA General Secretary Jermoe Valcke stated that ‘the fact that we have the right to sell beer has to be part of the law’- effectively disregarding the existing law in each country. Revealing the commercial motivations for their position, FIFA is not insisting that all forms of alcohol be sold at World Cup matches, but that beer be sold.

While we’re frequently told how important these deals are for funding these sporting events, let’s not forget who’s reaping the greatest benefit from these deals.

Linking alcohol and sport might seem benign – certainly, the alcohol industry argues that it does not deliberately set out to target underage drinkers.  However, given the popularity of sport and the Olympics in particular, alcohol advertising during sporting broadcasts has the potential to reach a significant number of children and young people. This level of exposure is amplified by the fact that here in Australia, alcohol ads, normally prohibited during times when children are watching (before 8.30pm), can be broadcast at any time during a live sporting event on weekends or public holidays.

Alcohol advertising is known to encourage early initiation of drinking, and in the long term, higher alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization has recognised the importance of restricting young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing, noting in a 2011 report that such exposure was an issue of concern. Here in Australia, the 2009 National Preventative Health Taskforce report recommended phasing out alcohol sponsorship at times and in places where children and young people were likely to be exposed. Yet in spite of all this, the association between sport and alcohol in Australia remains a close one and alcohol companies have long held a presence in the sponsorship and marketing field. Not to mention that excessive drinking can be seen to be normalised by some professional athletes, who act as role models to young people.

Encouragingly, in Australia, sporting clubs are getting a helping hand from the government to break the hold of alcohol sponsors. The launch of a new Community Sponsorship Fund by Australia’s National Preventive Health Agency, funded by revenue from the alcopops tax, is designed to buy out alcohol sponsors of sporting codes and replace them with health messages. The initiative represents a much-needed courageous step towards breaking the nexus between alcohol and sport.

Here’s hoping that the organisers of the 2016 Olympics can be so brave. Unfortunately I think it would require more than just Dutch courage.

Sondra Davoren

Sondra is a Senior Legal Policy Advisor at Cancer Council Victoria and a member of Australia’s National Preventive Health Agency’s Expert Committee on Alcohol.


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