25th September 2015

Should alcohol, fast food and sugar brands be allowed to sponsor the Rugby World Cup?

The Rugby World Cup has come home. But it comes at a time when sports sponsorship is under increasing scrutiny, from health lobbying groups in particular.

In 2014, a group of medical professionals wrote an open letter imploring the ban of alcohol sponsorship in sport, stating:

“It would be considered outrageous if high-profile teams like Everton or Celtic were to become brand ambassadors for tobacco, and so why is it acceptable for alcohol?”

Equally there was a profound backlash to fast food and sugary drinks brands, including McDonald’s and Coca Cola, sponsoring the London 2012 Olympics.

With a recent WHO report predicting that by 2030, 74% of men and 64% of women in UK will be overweight, it’s easy to see why there is objection to these brands sponsoring an event which celebrates the pinnacle of human endeavour.

But should brands which sell products deemed ‘harmful’ to health be banned from sponsoring sporting events? When you compare it to tobacco sponsorship, the conclusion seems damning.

However once you scratch the surface, the answer is far from simple.

The first important distinction to make is that it is possible to ‘drink responsibly’ and ‘eat as part of a balanced diet’. Conversely ‘smoking responsibly’ is a bit of a stretch.

And if people are going to consume unhealthy products anyway (and not always responsibly) it’s important that brands use their platforms to promote more responsible consumption.

Due to strict regulations, alcohol brands are obliged to promote a healthy attitude towards drinking. For example, Guinness recently set up an interactive ‘beer goggles’ initiative at rugby games to show fans the effects of drinking on their reaction times behind the wheel.

If you look at Heineken’s “It’s Your Call” campaign with Jonah Lomu, the regulations surrounding alcohol advertising and sponsorship are evident. Forbidden from using players aged under 25 in its marketing, Heineken has chosen to focus on rugby legends of old – cementing it as a brand which understands rugby, its fans and its history.

With the British Beer and Pub Association estimating that 25 million pints will be ‘downed’ during the next six weeks, there’s no denying that rugby fans would benefit from positive messaging around drinking.

But if alcohol sponsors such as Heineken are no longer allowed to promote themselves to this audience, it means the message about responsible drinking would be lessened too.

Alcohol brands seem to be taking this responsibility seriously. Heineken’s ‘Dance More, Drink Slow’ campaign featuring EDM superstar Armin van Buuren in 2014, promoted drinking in moderation as something progressive and, importantly, ‘cool’. It has also been a partner of alcohol addiction charity, Addaction, since 2005.

In an ideal world, health action groups and alcohol charities would have the funds and the influence to spread their messaging at international sporting events. But for now, at least Heineken – and other sponsors – seem to be taking those responsibilities seriously.

It remains to be seen, however, whether sugar and fast food sponsors can garner the same positive impact.

By Mary Harding, Consumer Managing Director

This article originally appeared on PRWeek.com