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The Week Sports Advertising Got Blattered



The Fifa fiasco is sure to cast a football-shaped shadow over this year’s Cannes, reckons Laura Swinton

The Week Sports Advertising Got Blattered

Sport! What happened to you? You used to be so much fun! And, as far as advertising was concerned, a bit of an easy win, particularly where major global competitions were involved. A big brand, a healthy chunk of cash, a vaguely inclusive and upbeat campaign and some fun slebs chucked in, if you were lucky. It all added up to a shoo-in for at least two or three bronzes on the award circuit. Even the dullest of sectors could get a bit playful when it came into contact with some sponsorship pixie dust. It was brilliant. And then… well… Fifa-ggedon happened and everything changed.

Last week’s high profile arrest of several Fifa executives and the ensuing revelations of corruption and bribery have certainly tainted the world of major sporting events. Although it’s unfolded with all the well-paced twists, turns and amorality of a House of Cards box set and thus been quite fun to watch from afar, it has been a disaster for brand marketers and advertisers. Sports marketing execs are amongst those who were fingered in the initial round of arrests. Sponsors’ logos were displayed, rather embarrassingly, on the official press release from Fifa in response to the arrests. Even non-official sponsors have been implicated in the investigations (cough cough ‘Sportswear Company A’). Nervy sponsors quickly issued concerned-but-tepid press releases and they came under pressure to withdraw their sponsorship.

Scandalous though the revelations have been, surprising they are not. Fifa’s dubious practices have been ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ for years, flaunted with the disdainful indiscretion of the untouchable. And Fifa isn’t even the only sporting organisation that has dragged its sponsors into a quagmire of disgrace in recent years; brands like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola found themselves on the receiving end of public ire during the Sochi Winter Olympics, thanks to Russia’s draconian track record on LGBT rights.

Until now, these concerns didn’t seem to put much of a dampener on exuberant sponsorship activities and expensive advertising campaigns. However, unlike the guddle of Brazil’s World Cup last year and the horrendous human rights abuses documented in  Qatar, this past week’s news has been impossible for advertisers to politely ignore (you’ve just got to love the corporate world’s priorities, right?). You can’t look the other way when the Feds are lurking.

I’m curious to know how all this is going to play out in the advertising industry. Trying to find adlanders willing to talk publically about the scandal was as difficult as trying to find Sepp Blatter’s moral fibres. One response that did elicit a chuckle was DawsonPickering’s Blatter Ball tweet – a football bearing the visage of the disgraced president (ex-president? Ex-president-to-be? I can't keep up. Sponsors must have been cracking out the party poppers when Blatter announced his resignation... and then packed them away again when it emerged that he'd be hanging around until at least December). Who could resist the chance to give Blatter a boot in the face? 

I reckon it’s going to be a hot topic of conversation down at this year’s Cannes. Oh, we won’t be yelling about it and I can’t see it being debated on the main stage in the Palais but it will be there, if you listen for it, in the snidey sideways mutters and the rosé-fuelled hubbub of the Carlton Terrace. 

Last year you couldn’t make it half way down the Croisette without stumbling across an inter-agency 5-a-side football match or a World Cup screening. We had, collectively, gone a bit World Cup crazy. I get the feeling that this year any mention of the beautiful game might be a tad more circumspect. 

I feel sympathy with the agencies and production companies who were hoping to harvest a crop of trophies on the back of their World Cup 2014 work. If the Fifa scandal doesn’t plant an unconscious bias in the minds of the juries, the celebrations around any winning work will probably be markedly low key, particularly at a client level. There were some really exceptional pieces of advertising that came out around Brazil 2014 that showcase ingenuity, creativity and craftsmanship. But on the other hand, the industry can’t pretend as if nothing has happened. 

I think we need to talk about it openly. The sustainability/advertising for good green wagon rumbles on but no number of Glass Lions and White Pencils and pro-bono charity projects should distract us from the very real fact that some of the highest-paying gigs in the business carry the association with high level corruption or, at the very least, dubious business practices. Richard Branson laid it out last week when he said, “Sponsorship money has played a major role in enabling and sustaining this corrupt system for decades, it seems. I couldn’t think of a greater risk to any brand than being described as complicit in what really looks like organized crime.”

There are ethical questions to be asked, sure, but it’s also one of the biggest brand communications headaches. Working with World Cup sponsors is going to become a hell of a lot more complicated.

Like I said, sport, you used to be fun.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 03 Jun 2015 16:45:35 GMT