This year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) signed on alcohol industry giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) as a part of its sponsorship program. Membership in the program is a coveted position for the exposure it provides. It is also expensive because the sponsorship deal earns billions of dollars for the IOC.
The IOC partnership with the world’s largest beer producer is highly controversial. The profit maximization interests of the alcohol industry – selling a harmful, carcinogenic, addictive product to ever more (young) people everywhere – contradicts directly the IOC’s own vision.
“Building a better world through sport” is the IOC vision, and sport is meant to serve humankind.
But alcohol is a major cause of death and disease among children and young people, especially. Alcohol is the second largest risk factor for disease burden in the age group 10-24 years. Alcohol is the largest risk factor for disease burden in the group 25-49 years.
The IOC and AB InBev announced the deal on January 05, 2024, for the next three Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
It is the first collaboration between the Olympics and a beer company. The sponsorship deal is valued at $1.725 billion, according to Times of India.
It means an avalanche of alcohol marketing will flood TVs, social media, and public places for AB InBev to get more people to consume alcohol.
The Paris Olympics will open on July 26, and the deal also includes the 2026 Winter Games in northern Italy. The more popular, perhaps more commercially relevant event is the Los Angeles Olympics, scheduled for 2028.
Alibi marketing in France to bypass ‘Loi Evin’
The IOC and AB InBev attempt circumvent the criticisms directed at this harmful collaboration by focusing on ‘Corona Cero’ as the beer brand that will be promoted. Cero is the low-alcohol version of the Corona brand, and contains 0.5% alcohol by volume. So, it’s not even ‘zero-alcohol’ but low-alcohol content. Corona Cero is tagged as the “global beer sponsor of the Olympic Games”.
The IOC did not disclose the value of the deal in its announcement. However, the Committee said that some of its sponsors pay more than $300 million to be in the TOP (The Olympic Partner) program for a four-year commercial cycle.
Engaging Anheuser-Busch InBev as a sponsor requires a redefinition of product categories to include ‘no-alcohol’ products by the IOC.
Leading with their low-alcohol product is clearly a tactical decision by the beer giant.
France implements world class standards for the protection of children and young people from alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion. The so called Loi Evin bans most forms of alcohol marketing and sets clear rules for other forms of alcohol marketing in France.
But the Loi Evin will only affect Anheuser-Busch InBev within France. The global scale of the Olympics allows the company to leverage the Olympic IP and sponsorship rights across global markets to promote their brands through the Olympic Games everywhere.
The Olympics doesn’t permit any advertising in and around venues during the Games, and France’s world class alcohol advertising standards limit the visibility of alcohol products. That’s why AB InBev deploys the low-alcohol brand and the IOC helps them to conduct so called alibi marketing.
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, also needs to follow high standards of protecting the people from alcohol marketing.
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.
But other alcohol brands have found ways to circumvent France’s world class alcohol advertising standards. For example, during rugby’s Six Nations Championship, the main sponsor Guinness, just replaced name of the alcoholic drink with the word “greatness” in the brand’s recognizable font and colors for matches held at the Stade de France in Paris.
During the European Football Championships in 2016 in France, main sponsor Carlsberg and the UEFA managed to circumvent the Loi Evin in similar ways.
The ‘Loi Evin’ only applies to beverages with an alcohol content by volume of more than 1.2%,” explains Professor Amandine Garde, as per CNN reporting.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that non-alcoholic drinks like Corona Cero are entirely excluded from the remit of the act.
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.
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.”Amandine Garde, professor of law, University of Liverpool
Alibi marketing is when alcohol companies use core elements of an alcohol brand’s identity, such as a strapline, word, colour or shape, in advertising for a no- or low-alcohol product.
CNN reports, however, what the AB InBev-IOC deal is really about: In the U.S. during the LA 2028 Games, AB InBev’s higher alcohol content beer Michelob ULTRA will front the partnership. And the LA games are the more commercially relevant event for AB InBev.
Another harmful aspect of introducing Corona Cero and the beer category into the sponsorship program is the gateway effect it has for alcohol products into the Olympics in general.
First Olympic partnership with Big Alcohol in a 40-year history
The IOC had never before signed an alcohol company as sponsor for its global events, which are considered to be the pinnacle of athletic achievement.
More than three billion people watched last Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2021, CNN reports, and sponsoring such an event is considered the holy grail for major brands. AB InBev is the latest corporate giant to participate in The Olympic Partner (TOP) program – the highest level of Olympic sponsorship – alongside 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.
The alcohol industry spent more than $600 million on sports sponsorship alone, worldwide in 2020, according to Statista. That makes alcohol companies rank eighth among the biggest industrial spenders on sports advertising.
For Big Alcohol and their brands, sport sponsorship and advertising during sports events is one of the keystones of their overall marketing activities.
A 2022 study from Australia illustrated how alcohol companies try to exploit sports to promote consumption of their products. The study found that the top ten alcohol companies placed 10,660 alcohol ads during Australian sports broadcasts over a 12-month period.
This amounts to an average of 75 minutes of alcohol advertising each week. Almost half (45%) of the alcohol ads aired during children’s viewing times (before 8.30pm).
Another example is alcohol industry spending during Super Bowl, one of the three biggest global sport evetns.
In 2023, eight alcohol commercials, for 361 seconds, with the cost of $7 million per 30 seconds meant the alcohol industry nearly doubled their spending on alcohol advertising during the 2023 Super Bowl, compared to 2022.
The alcohol industry spent big on both national and regional activations.
For AB InBev, the new opportunity to reach billions of people with the alcohol marketing messages is crucial, as it adds the Olympic Games to the Football World Cup, and the Super Bowl, where the beer giant has and maintains singular status in how much it spends on marketing to drive sales.
AB InBev exposed for unethical and predatory practices
In 2023, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced that it would focus its marketing efforts on sporting and music events. This announcement followed the controversy surrounding the AB InBev brand Bud Light’s exploitation of queer and transgender rights in a failed marketing stunt. Sponsoring the Olympics is the beer giant’s push into spaces it has previously not been present and to pursue its profit maximization objectives through promoting alcohol during one of the world’s highest profile events.
For AB InBev the heavy investment in marketing its products with the help of the Olympic Games means they need to receive returns. They need more people to consume more alcohol more often to drive sales and profits. But this means greater harm for people and communities.
For instance, in the two weeks surrounding the Super Bowl in 2022, people in the U.S. spent more than $1.6 billion on beer, hard cider and malt beverages. More than 60 million cases of those alcoholic drinks were sold, according to Nielsen IQ.
AB InBev is spending so much on Olympic Games marketing because they aim to push poeple into spending on alcohol.
AB InBev will seek to make alcohol more available in all kinds of ways: psychologically – that people feel they need alcohol for a specific event, such as Olympic Games; Socially – that people feel without alcohol social events, gatherings, and contexts would be worthless; and Physically – that alcohol is ever more present everywhere, from events, to the TV, to social media, to traditional media, and in the public space.
And AB InBev is open about this. Speaking to Marketing Week at an event to launch the partnership, AB InBev chief marketing officer Marcel Marcondes, said the partnership has the potential to grow the beer category as a whole:
Part of this partnership involves strengthening beer as a category…,” said Marcel Marcondes, as per Marketing Week.Marcel Marcondes, chief marketing officer, AB InBev
All this is harmful because it perpetuates an alcohol norm that is already driving record deaths and disease. And it is harmful because it glamorizes ill-health and distorts public recognition that alcohol causes serious harm.
Big Alcohol and alcohol marketing versus the IOC Charter
Social responsibility and respect for internationally recognised human rights and universal fundamental ethical principles are core elements of the IOC Charter.
According to the IOC Charter, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Upon questioning by the media, IOC President Thomas Bach said that the beer giant shared values with the IOC. AB InBev CEO Doukeris told the AP that he doesn’t “see any conflict” with Corona Cero as the global brand of the Games.
But the alcohol industry in general, AB InBev in particular and alcohol marketing very clearly contravene, undermine, and threaten the fundamental principles of the IOC. The alcohol industry causes harm with their products and practices. AB InBev is a multinational giant with a horrible human rights track record. And alcohol marketing is one of the most harmful practices of the alcohol industry.
For example, in 2020 the World Health Organization – UNICEF – The Lancet Commission on the Future of the World’s Children identified two existential threats to children: among them the existential threat of predatory commercial exploitation that is encouraging harmful and addictive activities that are extremely deleterious to young people’s health. The alcohol industry is included.
In 2022, AB InBev spent a total of $7.3 billion on marketing worldwide. The beer giant generated global revenue of over $57 billion in 2022. This was an increase over the $54 billion dollars in revenue in 2021.
In pursuit of profit maximization AB InBev deploys a range of unethical and predatory business practices. For instance:
- In South Africa, AB InBev tried to stop the life-saving temporary alcohol sales ban during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In Canada, AB InBev derailed an alcohol tax increase that was supposed to help reduce alcohol deaths and economic costs due to alcohol.
- In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission issued over 700 “Notice of Penalty Offenses” including to AB InBev, warning them that using endorsements that deceive customers could result in significant civil penalties.
- European Commission has fined AB InBev for trade violations.
- India’s Antitrust Agency found AB InBev guilty of engaging in beer price cartelization in the country and imposed huge penalties.
- AB InBev was also fined in India for bribery and tax schemes.
- AB InBev has also been exposed for using pink-washing, rainbow-washing to hijack important social justice causes for corporate gain.
- AB InBev threatens the health and livelihoods of Mexican communities by draining their precious drinking water.
- AB InBev is misleading people and policy makers about the harms of alcohol, such as cancer.
Big Alcohol’s predatory practice of exploiting sports to access the youth and drive sales
Alcohol marketing is an important structural element of the alcohol industry. A Special Feature published by Movendi International exposed case stories of three world sports where alcohol advertising and sponsorship are pervasive.
While highly profitable for the alcohol industry, alcohol marketing is also highly harmful to people and communities, especially for children and youth.
The alcohol industry pursues sports sponsorship to increase brand awareness, link their brands and products with the heroics and physical performance of sports, and drive sales of their products. Other than reaching millions of sports fans, this strategy allows alcohol giants to specifically reach a younger audience and align their products with the attributes of elite sports – disguising their products’ harmful nature.
The Olympic Games are also a platform on which an increasing number of youths take part in new sports categories. Even minors are competing, and winning medals.
The IOC’s own stated marketing mission is to “not accept commercial associations with products that may conflict with or be considered inappropriate to the mission of the IOC or to the spirit of Olympism.”
In 2016, a landmark study reviewed data on 12,760 participants from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Poland about the link between alcohol sports sponsorship and alcohol consumption.
It showed that exposure to alcohol sports sponsorship drives alcohol consumption, including heavy and high-risk alcohol use.
The researcher concluded that the study corroborated results of previous systematic reviews that also showed a direct link between exposure to alcohol marketing and alcohol consumption. The relationship between alcohol sports sponsorship and increased alcohol use among schoolchildren is a serious concern.
AB InBev credits their marketing campaigns with driving ‘highest-ever’ volume sales. Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Michel Doukeris said the beer giant had stepped up its marketing effort, including digitally. AB InBev is also gearing up to reach young people increasingly through the digital world.
Alcohol advertising fuels the alcohol norm
A key goal with alcohol marketing for the alcohol industry is to produce brand-loyal consumers and thus, ensure profit maximization.
In 2019, Movendi International reported on a study that examined the impact of repeated alcohol advertising on sports fans. The study found positive links between incidental exposure to alcohol brands on indirect measures of attitudes toward alcohol. This is also true of specific alcohol brands. The study also found no effect of cognitive fatigue on indirect measures toward brands and alcohol.
As sports fans are repeatedly exposed to alcohol advertising and sponsorship when watching sports, it likely has a long-term effect on their alcohol use. Given the exposure of children to this particular type of advertising, the researchers call for protection of children from alcohol marketing.
But the IOC has chosen to provide a platform and direct channels for the beer giant AB InBev to reach children and young people.
Community and scientific voices raise concern
Anheuser-Busch InBev’s announcements of the sponsorship deal with the IOC all contain the same language that aims to confuse the public about the true effects of alcohol harm. They all invoke the alcohol giant’s supposed contribution to health and development.
AB InBev and the IOC deploy the myth of “moderation” and “social responsibility”.
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”.
But this is alcohol industry propaganda and contradicts scientific findings.
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 Prof. Garde, according to CNN.
It flies in the face of the commitments that states have made, individually and collectively, to prevent and address alcohol-related harm.
This is yet again an example of the prioritization of short-term profits over people’s health.”Amandine Garde, professor of law, University of Liverpool
How the AB InBev products are marketed is troubling many people and communities, particularly given the visual similarities between alcoholic drinks and their no-alcohol counterparts.
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.”
We know that exposure to alcohol marketing leads to more [alcohol use] in people who already consume alcohol, or alcohol initiation in younger people as well. And I think the concern here is that this is going to […] advertise an alcohol brand.”Alex Barker, lecturer in psychology, University of Derby
The Association of Directors of Public Health from the UK described the IOC and AB InBev deal as having “disgraceful disregard” for the health and wellbeing of sports fans across the world.
We know that there is a relationship between the exposure of children to alcohol marketing and alcohol consumption. Linking alcohol to the Olympics in this way represents a disgraceful disregard for the health and wellbeing of the millions of children that will be watching both in the UK and across the world.
Tragically though, this deal won’t just further the normalisation of alcohol consumption. In all probability, it will actually increase it. 30% of under 18s watch the Olympics – that means three out of every ten children will be exposed on multiple occasions to marketing specifically designed to increase the appeal and sales of products that cause harm. In no athlete’s world can that be acceptable.”Alice Wiseman, ADPH Vice President and Policy Lead for Addiction
Movendi International President Kristina Sperkova calls for a termination of the deal and for the IOC to live up to its own charter, values, and vision, instead of putting children in harm’s way for money. Alcohol harm is one of the biggest obstacles to poverty eradication, ending violence, achieving health for all, and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
The IOC is shockingly failing its own mission, violating its own fundamental principles of respecting human rights and ethical standards. For money the IOC is now doing the dirty work for Big Alcohol putting billions of people, among the vulnerable children and youth, in harm’s way.
This deal between the IOC and AB InBev is now making alcohol consumption synonymous with the Olympic Games and spirit. The world faces a massive alcohol burden, driven by the products and practics of alcohol giants such as AB InBev. We need action to protect more people from alcohol companies, not giving them more platforms and channels to reach children and youth with the alcohol marketing messages.
We call on the IOC and all National Olympic Committees to put the best interest of children and young people first, to consider the serious alcohol harms societies are facing and to terminate this ill-advised deal with Big Alcohol.Kristina Sperkova, International President, Movendi International
International Olympic Committee: “International Olympic Committee and AB InBev announce Worldwide Olympic Partnership“
Association of Directors of Public Health (APHA): “Dismay at AB InBev Olympic deal“
Marketing Week: “AB InBev CMO: Olympics partnership will ‘strengthen’ beer as a category“