17th May 2023 | Assoc. Professor Helen Dixon

A new study published in BMC Public Health found that counter-advertising exposing and critiquing alcohol sports sponsorship bolstered public support for restrictions on this harmful marketing.

Despite the many health benefits of sport, elite sport is awash with booze sponsorship. Whether watching games live or on TV, spectators are bombarded with alcohol sponsors’ marketing via banners around the playing field, logos on the players’ uniforms, in-game advertising, and sports celebrity endorsement of sponsor products. The more spectators are exposed to alcohol sponsorship, the more likely they are to drink at harmful levels.

In Australia, where our research was done, there are strong financial and cultural ties between alcohol and sport. Without strong public support for restrictions on alcohol sport sponsorship, policy change in this area is unlikely. This study tested whether showing rugby fans counter-advertising exposing alcohol harms and sponsorship tactics boosts public support for policy change.

The study involved over 1,000 Australian adults who planned to watch a National Rugby League (NRL) State of Origin series game, which was riddled with alcohol sponsorship. In the week leading up to the game, the researchers sent the rugby fans counter-ads to watch online, to test if these counter-ads could ‘inoculate’ the fans against the influence of the barrage of alcohol marketing they would be hit with when watching the rugby game.

Three different counter-ads were tested to see which was most effective. The first counter-ad showed alcohol harms; the second counter-ad showed alcohol harms and exposed and critiqued alcohol sports sponsorship (see Figure 1); the third counter-ad was a neutral ad that didn’t mention alcohol or sport. The adults in the study did a baseline survey, then watched their assigned counter-ad several times in the lead up to the rugby game, then did a follow-up survey a few days later.

Figure 1: Description of the counter-ad exposing alcohol sport sponsorship and harms

This counter-ad illustrates how children are routinely exposed to alcohol sponsorship when attending sporting events and watching televised sport. A male voiceover explains that “Our kids are in training. And who’s training them? The alcohol industry. Alcohol sponsorship covers the sports grounds they go to and is promoted during the sport they watch on TV. They’re being trained to think that sport and alcohol go hand-in-hand. But alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer and 2000 cancer deaths every year. If the alcohol giants keep sponsoring sport, the harm will continue to the next generation. Isn’t it time to kick alcohol sponsorship out of sport?”

The counter-ad exposing alcohol sponsorship and harms was effective at increasing public support for policies to restrict alcohol sponsorship of sport, including the complete removal of alcohol sponsorship from sport. Rugby fans who viewed this counter-ad were more critical of alcohol sports sponsorship and the alcohol industry in general, compared to fans who viewed the health harms counter-ad or the neutral ad.

So what? Counter-advertising showing how the alcohol industry uses sports sponsorship to market their harmful products is a powerful tool for building public awareness of this pervasive marketing technique, which helps build public support for policies to restrict alcohol sport sponsorship.

Written by Assoc. Professor Helen Dixon, Principal Research Fellow, Cancer Council Victoria, Australia.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

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