At Large: With Big Tobacco back in F1 can sport do better when selling bad things?

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly on the trust we place in our sporting sponsors.

At Large: With Big Tobacco back in F1 can sport do better when selling bad things?

The possibility of serious injury notwithstanding, doing sport can pretty much be said to be good for you. Watching sport – that’s more of a neutral activity.

The fault line between the two is uncertain territory enough for companies hoping some of the afterglow of physical wellbeing will alight upon their brand. For those pushing vices through the virtues of sport, it’s even more complicated. Teams and rights holders have a prerogative to make money and an audience entitled to enjoy any number of products at their own discretion. But leaving aside the protections in place for children, the ethics of influence are difficult to navigate. 

The question is always there: can brands do better when using sport to sell things that are bad for us?

Cigarette sponsorship, once such a feature of elite sport, is widely taboo these days. So those in the nicotine delivery business turned to surreptitious branding, subliminal messaging and covert lobbying. By now, the characterisation is pretty well formed: if social media and addictive tech are delinquent teens on their way to a misspent life, then Big Tobacco is the unrepentant felon they idolise. Like they say, 1.1 billion smokers can’t be wrong.

And if you peer a little through the smoke, you might see a familiar presence emerging in motorsport. British American Tobacco will return to Formula One in 2019 for the first time in eight years in a deal with McLaren. Philip Morris International has remained a generous patron of Ferrari for years and is now pushing that partnership back to the front through something called Mission Winnow: an organisation with the ‘simple goal’ of ‘constantly searching for better ways of doing things’.     

If that isn’t reassuring enough, the official website offers further guidance. Mission Winnow’s two most tangible projects appear to be finding cleaner, safer ways of smoking – that aren’t vaping, of course – and developing JMI products that can mimic clinical tests on humans.

Australian regulators have caught an unseemly whiff from all this and it remains to be seen if Ferrari will run with Mission Winnow branding on its cars in Melbourne next month, or indeed anywhere . But ‘the change’, PMI insists, ‘is real’. And look, if you can’t trust the tobacco industry…

Still, no matter what that girl in the year above said, smoking isn’t cool – and no one knows that better than sponsors fearing similar advertising restrictions.

Wary of growing public concerns about sugar consumption, and cynicism about the juxtaposition of fizzy drinks and active lifestyles, Coca-Cola has promised to use its sponsorship of English soccer’s Premier League to highlight some of the healthier beverages in its portfolio. The flagship Coke brands were used for the launch earlier this month in a spot centred on grown-up fandom; other products will likely appear for ads involving on-field action and children.

With its emphasis on good-time socialising, the ‘Where Everyone Plays’ opener bears some traces of the traditional beer commercial. The interchange of product and message is another way in which soft drink and alcohol marketing are converging. Alcohol sponsorship is under far greater scrutiny, and illegal in several territories, but new techniques have appeared to keep it in legal good graces while remaining effective at the bottom line.

Heineken’s sponsorship of Formula One and Formula E is founded on some pretty straightforward positional thinking. Both series are premium and international; both have considerable on-site opportunities to sell beer to spectators and circulate it among hospitality guests. The Dutch brewer also took the fairly pro forma decision to make motorsport partnerships the anchor of its campaigns against drink-driving.

Here is where it completes the circle: the fastest-growing category for any brewer is non-alcoholic beer. The success of Heineken 0.0, rolled out across 38 markets in 2018, is being credited with helping the company to its biggest financial year in a decade. Heineken doesn’t just want to be the world’s favourite beer, it wants to be the most popular option for those who want to have a drink but shouldn’t – like drivers.

Socially conscious messaging is compulsory now for alcohol brands so it might as well have some substance. Guinness, inevitably, has at least succeeded in making it interesting. The Diageo-owned Irish stout can be pretty confident about the strength of its association with rugby union’s Six Nations Championship, so has used its new title sponsorship to launch a new product: Guinness Clear.

It’s tap water, in a branded glass, promoted in a slickly produced satirical video and through the distribution of water at each home venue. Selling fans on taking water breaks in their alcohol consumption is more constructive than the hollow legal advice to ‘Enjoy Alcohol Responsibly’. The framing is typically memorable and Guinness will count on the positive – and unconscious – associations being enough to steer full pubs of rugby supporters back to the black stuff once they’re ready for something stronger.

There is a template emerging, then, for effective and responsible activation and for one sector in particular, there is a growing need to make it work. The funding and function of betting sponsorship is now embedded deep within the sports industry, and will only become more so as legalised gambling rolls out across the US. At the same time, though, its practices are coming under increasing threat from regulators in other territories.

Here in the UK, it isn’t hard to see why. The standard bookmaking call to action remains that when Ray Winstone appears, you take out your wallet. That’s not so much a pre-game ritual as the bones of a protection racket. Sports gambling ads are naked grabs for attention, calls to bet now, in play, made either with studied zaniness or the help of a gang of laddy-lad-lads for whom being fictional constructs was the only hope of having any mates. To British audiences, the message is: ‘When the fun stops, stop.’ It typically appears about 15 seconds too late for most viewers.

This shrieking bombardment could almost have been calculated to address the most vulnerable gamblers. If bookmakers don’t want to set up a losing battle with the authorities – and with good taste – they are better served reshaping their sports sponsorship pitch around healthier attitudes. Instead of pushing cut-price odds and targeting solo in-play customers, highlight products that bring groups together and help friends ensure one another’s safety. Instead of depicting consumers as savants with wonder-hunches who should know free money when they see it, at least float the possibility of losing.  

You might get pretty long odds on them doing it, but it’s a good bet. And if it doesn’t happen, well, let’s discuss what comes next over a cigarette.