Thousands of Scots football fans pay homage every weekend to their clean-living sporting heroes, primed to within an inch of their optimum body-fat percentage, as they cover every blade of grass...while sporting the name of a drinks brand on their strips.
This anomaly is never given a second thought by the vast majority of supporters, looking to have a few pints and enjoy the match – win, lose or draw.
Celtic and Hibs are the two Scottish clubs which spring to mind with the Hoops having Magners Cider adorning the back of their shirts and hipster gin brand Eden Mill, who also sponsor Scottish Rugby, covering the ripped shoulders of the Hibee favourites.
However, although completely at odds with the lifestyle choices required to make it to the Holy Grail of a career move to the English Premiership, the players seem oblivious to the fact that they are, in effect, being used to promote alcohol brands.
This is something that Dr Nathan Critchlow from the Institute for Social Marketing at Stirling University knows only too well, having worked with his colleague Dr Richard Purves on a study called Foul Play? – which examined alcohol marketing during the UEFA Euro 2016 football championships in France.
The report highlighted how alcohol producers worked to circumvent legislation designed to protect children during the tournament. The French operate a strict ban of alcohol TV advertising and sports sponsorship is banned under a law known as the ‘Loi Évin’ named after Claude Évin, the French minister for health who proposed it to parliament.
Researchers uncovered more than 100 alcohol marketing references per televised match programme in three countries: France, the UK and Ireland. An analysis of broadcast footage found that alcohol marketing appeared, on average, once every other minute.
The majority took the form of ‘alibi marketing’, where indirect brand references are used to promote a product rather than a conventional logo or brand name.
Carlsberg was the most featured brand, accounting for almost all references in each of the three countries using their slogan ‘Probably the best in the world’ while avoiding mentioning the product name.
The concept of ‘alibi marketing’ is nothing new. Ferrari used a barcode logo after it could no longer use the Marlboro name on its cars in 2007. Though it was forced to remove the barcode logo in 2010, Philip Morris renewed its sponsorship of Ferrari’s F1 team this autumn, continuing a commercial relationship that began in 1972. It has led to accusations that it uses subliminal marketing to contravene regulations preventing tobacco advertising to promote the Marlboro brand, something Ferrari and Philip Morris deny.
Dr Critchlow explains why sport, in particular rugby and football in Scotland, is such an attractive prospect to drinks companies.
“When it comes to sports sponsorship, the fundamental goal of marketing is to create a positive brand attitude and within that you want to create a brand personality that people like, respond to and it’s something they want to pick up and reflect as part of their own personality,” he says. “The reason why sport is so crucial is because it already provides a base of an emotional response in terms of a positive feeling that we have for somebody, things like – famous sports people, rugby teams and competitions.
“These things are exciting, they’re fun and we want to engage with them. So, by creating sponsorship deals with the alcohol industry, they’re trying to capitalise on that positive effect and build it into the brand, rather than starting from scratch and coming up with something completely unique.
“You think about match days, you think about something like rugby and it brings with it a sense of positivity and hype.”
Clever marketing doesn’t always mean that the sporting brand has to necessarily be successful to enable fans to buy into the concept.
Tennent’s Lager, for example, has been adept at tapping into the Scottish psyche, using dark humour in particular to sell its product.
This plays with Scottish people’s sense of fatalism that has created an identity around the failings of the national football team, who once again will not be gracing the World Cup with their tartan presence.
Dr Critchlow adds: “It’s the dark, dour humour and the underdog mentality which I think Tennent’s has picked up on successfully.
“They’re quite keen to capitalise on the Scottish national team and I think in some ways when you have a sponsorship deal you’ve got to work with the tools and material that you’ve been given.
“If the Scottish football team isn’t performing then you’ve got to roll with that – but Tennent’s has in recent times created marketing campaigns that capitalise on humour.
“What you want marketing to do is to be eye-catching, engaging and something that people react to or perhaps might even participate with or even extend.
“If you can get a funny form of advertising, you get people telling their friends and it gets people laughing, they trade on that reaction and people want to keep on with that branding and that marketing message.”
Andrea Pozzi, MD of Tennent’s gives this reaction: “Tennent’s is 100 per cent committed to the responsible promotion of alcohol, and all our marketing activities meet or exceed the guidelines currently in place.
“We have a track record of taking steps to reduce the damage to health as a result of alcohol abuse in Scotland, including our longstanding support of minimum unit pricing and the introduction of nutritional information and guidelines onto our packaging.”
He adds: “Tennent’s has invested millions of pounds to support, promote and enhance Scotland’s sporting and cultural activities in the last 40 years, and all marketing is carefully targeted to the intended adult audience.”
Restricting exposure to alcohol branding through effective marketing regulations or comprehensive advertising bans is one of the three best buy interventions recommended by the World Health Organisation to reduce harmful drinking and thereby the burden of noncommunicable diseases. (A best buy is an intervention that is not only cheap but feasible and culturally acceptable to implement.)
In Scotland, although governed by the same self regulation as the rest of the UK, the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 set out five high level objectives that include protecting and improving public health and protecting children from harm. This is something that puts the country ahead of the rest of the UK in terms of licensing applications, which can be considered based on a public health outcome. This could see a refusal to grant a license in an area where there is already substantial alcohol-related harm.
The current self-regulatory system is something Dr Critchlow wants to see reversed.
“The wider evidence suggests that self regulation isn’t an effective way of regulating alcohol marketing. The fact is we still see alcohol consumption as a problem in Scotland and if marketing didn’t work then there’s no question that the big companies wouldn’t invest so much money into it,” he says.
“I don’t think the system we have is perfect and evidence would suggest there are opportunities for further revision.
“It’s strategically ambiguous to ask an institution to regulate something effectively when it’s intrinsically linked to their purpose which is to sell products.
“If marketing is a factor which is known to drive sales, it’s almost difficult from a commonsense point of view to understand how those two things could co-exist”.
A spokesperson for the Carlsberg Group in Denmark says they followed the letter of the law in France during Euro 2016.
He adds: “Carlsberg has had an international partnership with UEFA for many years and can exercise this in European countries like any other UEFA partners. In France, we strictly apply loi Évin, which is why we did not advertise our beer brands and never linked the partnership to alcohol. “Ultimately our campaign was focused around making the football experience better for the fans – by ensuring more fans had tickets than ever before, serving Carlsberg beer in the fan zones and the non-alcoholic Carlsberg 0.5 per cent in the stadiums. Our sponsorships are implemented in a responsible manner and comply with local market codes as well as our own strict policy on responsible marketing.”