Ethical Sponsorship in Sport

A general discussion on where do you draw the line on advertising.


A friend of mine recently sent me an article on the topic which has come back into the public spotlight after the Cristiano Ronaldo vs two bottles of Coca-Cola incident at the Euros.


An accurate recreation of the Cristiano vs Coca-Cola moment. Photo by Martyn Foster.

Ronaldo moved the coke bottles out the way and grabbed some water instead, which made headlines around the world, though the $4 billion loss in market value was not really down to him as some printed. Coca-Cola has a long running partnership with FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, which extends back nearly 50 years. Herein lies the question though, if one of the greatest athletes of all-time can publicly shun the unhealthy sugary soft drink, why can’t the sport?


There has been a long history of unhealthy and/or tempting products that have been utilised in sponsoring sport, some still with us, others have been removed. Tobacco companies were huge sponsors of many sports, from motor racing to cricket, back when smoking was a socially acceptable practice unlike it is today.


F1 Driver James Hunt smoking and drinking on the podium in his Marlboro race suit. Photo by David Phipps.

I’m not going to lie though, some of the liveries produced from these tobacco sponsors were glorious and are miles better than what we see on racing cars today. People will remember Ayrton Senna and his Marlboro McLaren or John Player Special Lotus (see below pics), but I doubt you’ll get the same reaction for a Shell V-Power Ferrari or Petronas Mercedes. There may be some nostalgia element to it, also appealing to the era as well as these aesthetically pleasing designs. However, as much as I miss looking at them, I don’t think one could ethically justify them anymore.




With Tobacco out of the way, it is left to banks, beer and betting companies, burger joints and bull-shaped drinks to hold the fort. Now, you could make the case that these too should be phased out due to their ethical questionability for the wider sporting audience and the potential social and health ramifications, but such is the nature of how sport is funded, I doubt we’ll see much in the way of their removal let alone reduction anytime soon.


“How much are your ethics worth?”

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR – though not the brand of sugar), a term coined in the 50’s by American Economist, Howard Bowen, implores corporations to aim and implement practices and policies with more pro-social objectives and outcomes – to care about the impact their business has on the world and its people. The idea being for companies to want to have a long-term, positive influence and mutually beneficially relationship on the world and communities alike. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether companies actually carry this out ethically or just pontificate.


A lot of resources and money are put in by these companies to better understand human behaviour so they can advertise/promote/market more effectively to you, the consumer. Heineken and Coca-Cola would not put forward an annualised amount of $45m and $35m USD respectively to access the audience of UEFA tournaments - such as Euro 2020, uh ’21 – if there was not some serious benefit in doing so.


“So, is the power of marketing/advertising that strong that we need to be saved from ourselves? What about the individual’s freedom of choice?”

That is the grand question, where does the responsibility lie? The onus is on both to act ethically, but the buck ultimately stops with the individual. However, companies are going to do everything in their power to get you to do what they want you to do. You are already primed before the match to potentially have a few drinks, maybe get some fast-food, have a bit of a flutter (bet) and then you are bombarded with the pre-game, in-game, half-time, end of match repetitive advertising trying to tip you over the edge, so to speak.


You don’t have to look too far to see the negative side effects of too much sugar and fat intake, problematic gambling and alcohol. We have significant health and social problems in society surrounding obesity, alcohol-induced violence and anti-social behaviour (particularly domestic violence and mob behaviour), diabetes, heart/blood issues, financial ruin destroying the lives of people and their families as well as suicide. And all these concerns can be linked back to the products or services provided by a number of the sponsors in sport.


Now, I’m not trying to come across “holier-than-thou”, an attitude which is counterproductive in my opinion. I’m not running around screaming “think of the children!” (though to some extent we should), but you have to ask what sort of message/s do you want associated with your professional sporting codes where the men and women of elite health, fitness and strength perform? And what positive, good and healthy appraisal do we want to associate with the sponsored products or services?


It’s not about never having a beer while watching a match, just not 10, but perhaps not showing us one every two minutes might help that…

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