Drinks industry strategy relies on recruiting young drinkers to their brand

The aim of sponsorship is to ‘piggyback’ on sport’s positive images

“There are 2,000 Irish people in hospital beds today due to alcohol use.”

“There are 2,000 Irish people in hospital beds today due to alcohol use.”


Since proposals to gradually phase out sponsorship of sports events by the alcohol industry resurfaced a few weeks ago, the response has been entirely predictable.

Senior sporting figures have been lined up to warn of the dangers of removing sponsorship by alcohol companies, as though it were all going to disappear tomorrow and the world of sport would collapse forthwith. As usual, alcohol companies are positioning themselves as philanthropists. Yet the reality is that sponsorship helps secure a whole new generation of drinkers.

As part of its 2009 investigation into the conduct of the UK alcohol industry, the House of Commons Health Select Committee obtained access to internal marketing documents from both producers and their advertising agencies. The documents were analysed by Prof Gerard Hastings.

His report’s title, “They’ll Drink Bucketloads Of The Stuff”, says it all about the alcohol industry’s aims. For example, internal documents from the drinks company Carling show that the aim of sponsorship was to “Build the image of the brand and recruit young male drinkers”. Carling summed it up thus: “They (young men) think about 4 things: we brew one, and sponsor two of them.”

The internal documents were equally cynical about recruiting young women. One brand described its marketing as somewhere between “MySpace and High School Musical”. The latter was a highly popular Disney Channel movie aimed at six- to 14-year-olds.

A major study of 6,600 adolescents in four European countries, published in December 2012 by Amphora, an initiative of the European Commission, found that “Alcohol-branded sport sponsorship influences alcohol consumption among adolescents. Exposure to sport sponsoring can predict future drinking.”

As Patrick Kenny, a DIT lecturer in marketing, has pointed out, one of the reasons that sponsorship is important is because consumers generally have a more benign interpretation of it than they have of advertising. Sponsorship is perceived to be generous and supportive, whereas advertising is seen as motivated by selfish reasons. People’s defence mechanisms are low when it comes to sponsorship, and high when it comes to advertising.

Alcohol sponsorship of sport is but one piece of the jigsaw when it comes to our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol, but it is an important one. The aim of sponsorship is to “piggyback” on the positive image generated by sport, so that the brand is associated with vibrant health, excitement, team spirit, and community.

A study of 462 Irish teenagers by Deirdre Palmer and Dr Gary O’Reilly found that the average age of starting to drink was 13.4 years, so you are talking about a very vulnerable and impressionable group. Many young people have an established drinking habit by 15 which mimics the adult pattern of binge-drinking. The younger people are when they start to drink, the more likely they are to experience harm.

The statistics on alcohol abuse in Ireland are frightening. As Dr Bobby Smyth, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, has pointed out, “alcohol kills 1,200 people per year. There are 2,000 Irish people in hospital beds today due to alcohol use.”

He continues: “ 10% of Irish children say their lives have been adversely affected by their parents’ drinking. More starkly, it is estimated that parental drinking accounts for one sixth of all cases of child abuse and neglect.’

Deputy Roisin Shortall has been to the forefront of attempts to improve our society’s dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. In a recent submission to an Oireachtas Committee, she expressed scepticism about the amounts of money that will supposedly be lost to sport if sponsorship by alcohol companies were to end, pointing to several successful transitions by sporting bodies to other sponsors.

She is supportive of the important role of sport and has no desire to undermine it. She proposed an alternative source of funding by revealing a little known VAT loophole.

At the moment, if a supermarket sells alcohol at below cost in order to attract customers to its store, it can apply for a refund of VAT from the Revenue Commissioners. They are entitled to this refund because they have made a “loss”, even though this “loss” is planned. In effect, the State subsidises the below-cost selling of alcohol .

If there were a complete ban on below cost selling of alcohol, some industry sources say it could generate as much as €20 million in increased VAT, which could be diverted towards sport. There are solutions which would allow us to transition smoothly from dependence on alcohol sponsorship, and we cannot allow the alcohol industry to prevent us finding them.

PS. David Robert Grimes, in an article on Wednesday, accused me of misusing research by Dr David Fergusson into the effects of abortion on women’s mental health. Did he miss the clarification on Morning Ireland on May 9th by Cathal Mac Coille stating that Dr Fergusson expressed no unhappiness whatsoever with how the Iona Institute has presented his research?

As for his allegation that David Quinn effectively misused research about the effects of different family forms on children, may I suggest he reads David’s article in the current issue of The Village? That will set him straight.