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.”
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.