Do we need a red card for alcohol advertising in football?


With the World Cup kicking off today, it’s time to brace ourselves for the highs and lows of a month of football. But disappointment may not be the only danger for fans as the tournament gets underway. In this guest post, Dr Jean Adams, a Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University, UK, tells us about her latest research into alcohol advertising in football, published last month in BMC Public Health.

Alcohol advertising Warsaw
Should adverts like this be the norm? The National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland. Image credit: Artur Malinowski/Flickr

Just like the weather here in the north of England, the summer sport season is hotting up. As I write, it is 19C in Newcastle and Djokovic and Gulbis are playing in the semi-finals of the French Open. Next on court is Andy Murray against Rafa Nadal (come on Andy!). Next week the FIFA world cup starts in Brazil, then Wimbledon, Le Grand Départ of the Tour de France from the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, the Commonwealth Games from my birthplace of Glasgow, the British Open from Royal Liverpool. With all that sport to watch, how will we get any work, let alone physical activity of our own, done?

Professional sporting contests are often described as inspiring. They are inspiring. When London hosted the summer Olympics in 2012, the buzzline was that we (and, yes, it really felt like the whole country was deeply involved) were inspiring a generation. Although the evidence that premium sporting events have any lasting effect on the physical activity of spectators is limited, the feel-good factor generated is perhaps worth the investment. And there may be other, wider, impacts of such events on communities.

In contrast, evidence is accumulating that watching these sporting events could be bad for our, and particularly our children’s, health – and not just because of the couch-potato behaviour it encourages.

The FIFA world cup lists major fast-food and alcohol brands among its premium sponsors. Sponsors of such events are often rewarded with lucrative packages. For example, at the EURO2012 football championship a major brand was named as the official beer of the tournament. This entitled them to heavy use of their logo on pitch-side electronic sponsor boards, and exclusive sales rights of alcoholic beverages in all stadia and outdoor fan zones. The FIFA world cup homepage currently features a link to a fast-food branded fantasy football game.

Jean Adams
“On UK TV, we found an average of 1.24 alcohol images per minute.” – Dr Jean Adams tells us about her latest research.

When we analysed the frequency of alcohol imagery in EURO2012 matches screened on UK TV, we found an average of 1.24 alcohol images per minute. In English professional club football there was more – almost 2 images per minute. Other research has found high levels of alcohol, unhealthy food, and gambling messages embedded in sports broadcasts.

Exposure to this sort of alcohol marketing is known to reduce the age that children start to experiment with alcohol, and increase the amount that those who already drink regularly consume. Similarly, there is a massive amount of research confirming that exposure to food marketing impacts on children’s food preferences, consumption and purchasing.

Importantly, this unhealthy imagery is, almost exclusively, embedded in sports broadcasts. The alcohol imagery we found in the EURO2012 broadcasts was primarily the beer sponsor’s logo on pitchside advertising hoardings, flashed on-screen before and after replays, and plastered all over the boards placed behind players, managers and reporters during interviews. This is not the traditional, between-programme advertising that is subject to a range of legislation and codes of conduct already. This is part of the very fabric of our televised sports. In fact, we found just as much alcohol imagery on EURO2012 matches broadcast on BBC1 – an advertisement free, public service channel – as on ITV1 – a commercial channel.

In the UK, the industry-sponsored codes of conduct that restrict this sort of alcohol marketing focus almost exclusively on narrative. Alcohol marketing must not encourage viewers to believe that alcohol makes you popular, enhances your sex appeal etc. etc.

Superficially, the alcohol imagery in sports does none of this. It is just simple depictions of alcohol brand logos. Yet, who truly believes that placing these images next to our sporting heroes does not link one to the other? Certainly, members of the public believe that alcohol TV advertisements in the UK are breaking the industry’s own codes of conduct. And by being almost context-free, these brand logos find it much easier to get into our heads than traditional advertisements and positively influence how we feel about the brands and products promoted.

In the UK, pressure is growing to curb alcohol sponsorship of sports, and other cultural events. The paradox of having to sit indoors to make the most of the summer sporting calendar is bad enough. As we prepare to enjoy more of the pseudo-injury ‘simulation’ antics of the world’s greatest footballers, maybe it is time to stop adding the insults of alcohol and unhealthy food marketing to the mix.

In case you were wondering, Djokovic and Gulbis are still at it, so I’ve managed to get my work done before Andy comes on court. Pray for a shortish match so I have time for a run before dinner!


Dr Jean Adams is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University, UK. She tries to talk about food and alcohol marketing more than tennis on Twitter: @jeanmadams, and edits the Fuse Open Science Blog documenting the trials and tribulations of working in public health research.

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