In memory of bad publicity

For marketers, Christmas may have arrived ahead of schedule in the form of the soccer World Cup. What’s even better, it looks like Santa is slacking off a bit when it comes to determining who is naughty and who is nice.

While the elves are still peeking through the windows, trying to make up their minds about whether giving the soccer World Cup 2022 to Qatar was nice or naughty, marketers around the world have been eager to jump on the estimated bandwagon to glory. As the FIFA itself mentions in its website, “The FIFA World Cup™ is the most effective international marketing platform, reaching millions of people in over 200 countries throughout the world.” And, since any publicity should be good, marketing a brand, company, product, or ideology on that forum is a worthwhile investment. Not to mention that when it comes to marketing, more is more.

Throughout the modern era of sponsoring, sports have been one of the most favorite areas to venture when companies and brands want to boost their image and market position. Getting facetime – and thus, association – with successful athletes, teams and events can, at least in theory, make anyone famous overnight. And, since we talk about sports, it is all about good behavior, healthy lifestyle, making the world a better place, and such, right? About all those things that are absolutely, definitely, and eternally positive.

If it only were that easy.

While the FIFA directors who were in charge in 2010 when the decision was made have not necessarily been provided gifts by Santa Claus for behaving so incredibly well, they certainly have been generously rewarded by the sheikhs. Even to the degree of some of the top brass members starting the pointing game just before the kick-off. “I think it was a mistake and as a matter of fact, I was against it, but the other guys were not.

Mistakes do happen, both when it comes to sports and athletes that are being sponsored. In Lahti 2001 World Ski Championships, the Finnish national team threw itself under the bus for years to come after the use of performance-enhancing substances by some of the team members as just about the entire fleet of sponsors vanished literally overnight.

In 2009, Tiger Woods lost his sponsors (including Gillette, Gatorade, and Tag Heuer) due to a sex scandal. So did Norwegian skier Petter Northug after drunk driving (when he crushed the speed limit and cocaine was found at his possession, he was already a bit past his prime). The list goes on and on – every sponsorship deal includes the risk of becoming associated with bad behavior. Whether that makes the publicity bad, is obviously up to the sponsor to decide.

Ever since Qatar became the host of World Cup 2022 and the construction of arenas began, thousands of migrant workers have allegedly died due to sheer neglect of safety issues at the sites. In addition, the country is infamous for its view on human rights, considering homosexuality a crime and dividing people in classes.

In this light and comparing the flip side of Qatar to those of Woods, Northug and the Finnish ski team, the fact that practically every main sponsor of the World Cup has stayed on board is downright astonishing. Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, Hyundai-Kia, Anheuser-Busch, and others are present in the kind of surroundings and associations that are definitely out of the zone they have traditionally become familiar with. Nicely formulated releases were issued about how the debate around FIFA is concerning and how equal rights are being expected – while at the same time, fat agreements were signed and massive plans were being laid out in attempt to make the very most of this newest investment, perhaps the most lucrative of all times.

Anheuser-Busch is so far the only one who has officially had second thoughts. As Qatar banned all beer sales at and around stadiums just two days before the World Cup began, Budweiser’s official Twitter account released according to CNBC a tweet saying “Well, this is awkward.”

The post was deleted shortly afterward. Either Budweiser realized that at least for the moment, any publicity is indeed good – or, decided to not make matters worse by rubbing it in any more than necessary.

The elves are out there, so this is the time to at least make it all look nice.


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