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Olympic sponsorship deal with beer company AB InBev criticized as ‘cynical’ and ‘an odd pairing’

By George Ramsay, CNN

(CNN) — The International Olympic Committee (IOC) descended on a London bar earlier this month to make a historic announcement: for the first time, the Olympics would be partnering with a beer company.

In a room crowded with people in suits, the sponsorship deal with brewing giant AB InBev was met with beaming smiles and the clinking of beer bottles by many of those in attendance. At the same time, IOC President Thomas Bach gushed about how sports and beer belong together.

“This partnership, from our perspective, is a perfect match,” Bach said during the announcement event, during which he talked about celebrating “the joy of sport and the joy of life.”

Amid all that talk of sport and life, the IOC and AB InBev were keen to underline that their sponsorship deal is being led by an alcohol-free beer, Corona Cero. The exception is in the US during the LA 2028 Games, when Michelob ULTRA will front the partnership.

But not everyone has welcomed news of the partnership – which covers the next three Olympics and Paralympics in Paris, Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo and Los Angeles – with such enthusiasm.

Notably, campaign groups have pointed to the incongruity of an event like the Olympics – perhaps the world’s biggest sporting event – rubbing shoulders with a beer company.

“Alcohol and the Olympics is certainly an odd pairing, given the athletes competing at this top level often do not drink alcohol at all as they prepare to take part in the Games,” Andrew Misell, a director at Alcohol Change UK, said in a statement sent to CNN Sport.

The last Summer Olympics in Tokyo was watched by more than three billion people, according to the IOC, and sponsoring such an event has become something of a holy grail for major brands.

AB InBev is the latest company to participate in The Olympic Partner (TOP) program – the highest level of Olympic sponsorship – alongside the likes of Coca-Cola, Visa and Deloitte.

For beer companies, in particular, sports are a fruitful market. A 2018 report from marketing service Sportcal found that there were 281 active sports sponsorship deals with the world’s 30 top alcohol brands, worth an estimated total of $764.5 million. AB InBev said that it would not reveal the cost of its deal with the IOC.

Within the public health community, there have been efforts to restrict alcohol marketing, which is described as a “poorly regulated” sector in the World Health Organization’s global alcohol action plan for 2022-2030.

WHO also runs an initiative to reduce alcohol harm around the world, including advocating for bans and tighter regulations on alcohol advertising, sponsorship and promotion.

The harmful impact of excessive alcohol consumption is now well-established, from increasing health risks – including cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression – to physical and sexual violence to fatal traffic accidents.

In 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of adult men and 9% of women had an alcohol use disorder in the US.

“We know that alcohol marketing works, and that consumers are very aware of brands and branding strategies from an early age,” Amandine Garde, a professor of law at the University of Liverpool whose work has focused on protecting public health, told CNN Sport.

“There is a lot of research on this point. Marketing influences consumer preferences and purchases, and therefore their health.”

The IOC and AB InBev see the deal as part of a wider market demand for non-alcoholic drinks which, despite being in circulation for decades, have had a recent surge in popularity.

In the year ending May 14, 2022, US retail sales of non-alcoholic beer rose 21% to $316 million, according to NielsenIQ, and brewing companies like AB InBev, Heineken and Molson Coors have started to expand their zero alcohol offerings.

“Part of this partnership involves strengthening beer as a category of moderation so that consumers can safely and responsibly enjoy the Olympic Games with non-alc beer,” Marcel Marcondes, chief marketing officer at AB InBev, told CNN Sport.

“Corona Cero leads the way in that direction. This is going to be a central part of our activation.”

Marcondes added that moderation is an “extremely important” part of AB InBev’s messaging, explaining how non-alcoholic drinks “open up new occasions and new opportunities for people to drink beer.”

In announcing the partnership with AB InBev last month, Bach said that that the focus on Corona Cero reflects a “commitment to social responsibility, to a healthy lifestyle” – though not everyone is convinced by that messaging.

“I find this eminently cynical that the IOC has concluded this deal and endorses the industry playbook of ‘responsible consumption’ when we know that alcohol consumption is harmful per se,” said Garde.

CNN has contacted the IOC for further comment.

While growing in popularity, non-alcoholic drinks do still occupy only a small share of the market compared to regular alcoholic beverages, and campaign groups remain sceptical of whether they are a positive influence when it comes to public health.

“I think the jury’s still out on the balance between helping people who are trying to drink less or give up, versus the risks of advertising a no or low preparation as an entry to young people and to increase familiarity with it,” Ian Gilmore, founder and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, told CNN Sport.

How these drinks are marketed to consumers is also seen as significant, particularly given the visual similarities between alcoholic drinks and their no-alcohol counterparts.

“Corona Cero, or the zero-alcohol version of Corona, shares key features with the Corona brand,” Alex Barker, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby, told CNN Sport.

“The question is whether the audience will know that this is for a zero-alcohol brand, or whether they will just see Corona and assume that it’s for Corona. This could be acting as an alibi brand.”

Barker added, “We know that exposure to alcohol marketing leads to more drinking in people who already drink, or alcohol initiation in younger people as well. And I think the concern here is that this is going to inadvertently advertise an alcohol brand.”

The Olympics doesn’t permit any advertising in and around venues during the Games, and France’s strict advertising laws might also limit how visible any alcohol-related branding is during this year’s event, which is being held in Paris.

Under “La Loi Evin” (Evin’s Law), alcohol sponsorships are banned at sporting events, including when they are being televised, and the content of permitted advertisements on billboards, for example, is closely controlled.

The law also prohibits the sale of alcohol at sports venues unless a temporary exemption has been granted, though local organizers do not plan to apply for an exemption for this year’s Olympics. Only VIPs, therefore, will be able to drink alcohol at venues and not the average spectator.

Some brands have found ways to navigate France’s restrictive laws when it comes to alcohol advertising.

During rugby’s Six Nations Championship, which is sponsored by Guinness, the name of the drink was replaced by the word “greatness” in the brand’s recognizable font and colors for matches held at the Stade de France.

“La Loi Evin” only applies to beverages with an alcohol content by volume of more than 1.2%. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that non-alcoholic drinks like Corona Cero are entirely excluded from the remit of the act, according to Garde.

“The limits imposed on alcohol advertising cover both direct and indirect advertising, and the notion of ‘indirect advertising’ has been interpreted broadly by the courts,” she told CNN Sport.

“It is, in my view, arguable that the use of similar branding for alcoholic and no-lo beverages is specifically intended to draw attention to the brand in its entirety, and the brand is primarily known for its alcoholic beverages.”

The IOC has previously come under pressure for having sponsors linked with unhealthy lifestyles, notably McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. The former ended its Olympic partnership by mutual agreement in 2017, while Coca-Cola has been supporting the Games since 1928.

With 30% of its funding coming from TOP marketing rights, the IOC clearly needs sponsorships to survive. But for Garde, striking a deal with a beer company remains a regrettable decision.

“It flies in the face of the commitments that states have made, individually and collectively, to prevent and address alcohol-related harm,” she said. “This is yet again an example of the prioritization of short-term profits over people’s health.”

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