Advertising and the World Cup

The action at the 2022 World Cup has officially kicked off, after weeks of controversy and speculation. The World Cup is the key event on the global sporting calendar, so brands across the world invest a huge amount of time, money and effort into creating brand-building World Cup campaigns that reach a global audience – particularly audiences that are usually more challenging to reach. Two or three years of sporting events negatively impacted by the pandemic – particularly the Tokyo Olympics – have only exacerbated the appetite for this opportunity. And the fact that it is happening – for the first and possibly only time – just before the holiday season – would normally make this advertising gold.

However, several factors have made the global response – from both advertisers and fans – more muted than normal.

The reasons World Cup advertising is different this year

Social issues

The key issues lie with the host nation. Qatar has a poor human rights record, particularly on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and workers’ rights. Homosexuality is illegal, and many migrant workers died from the heat and poor working conditions while constructing the World Cup venues. Many brands are nervous about the potential backlash from associating themselves with the World Cup and, by extension, Qatar.

Budweiser, a major sponsor of the World Cup, has faced its own unique challenges in the run-up to the tournament. The consumption of alcohol is very restricted in Qatar and is banned in public spaces. There has been much wrangling between Fifa – with contractual obligations to Budweiser – and Qatari authorities about the sale of alcohol and providing promotional space for the AB InBev brand. An agreement was reached that beer could be sold within a security perimeter outside venues; however, just eight days before the start of the tournament, a message was passed down from the highest levels of the Qatari state that Budweiser’s presence must be moved to less obtrusive locations, away from other concessions and sponsor activity. And then, just 48 before the first game, Fifa confirmed that the sale of beer in stadiums was banned entirely, meaning that Qatar had reneged on its commitment to allow the sale of alcohol both when bidding for the World Cup and when it signed contracts after winning.

The economic context

The cost of living and looming recession are also factors in the somewhat muted response to the World Cup this year. With consumers tightening their belts, brands are focusing on performance marketing more than on driving global awareness with a World Cup campaign. That said, World Cup advertising campaigns are so important to many brands that many will have committed their ad dollars to them up to 12 months ago, so the impact of the economic downturn won’t be as noticeable as might have been expected.

The time of year

The timing of the World Cup this year is also having an impact on marketing. Normally held in the summer, it was moved to the winter to accommodate the Qatari climate, which has summers far too hot for sport to be played. This of course moved it closer to the holiday season which sees such a high proportion of marketing budgets, but also means it is on screen at the same time as other sports, particularly in the US, where NBL, NFL and NHL are all competing for eyeballs.

Should World Cup advertising focus on the issues or the football?

With the above issues in mind and the need to focus on holiday season marketing, many marketers have dialled down their World Cup-based marketing this time around, with some possibly earmarking the money to invest in the 2026 tournament, which will be hosted by the far less controversial North America. Those that have decided to go ahead with World Cup advertising – including, of course, the sponsors of the event – are treading carefully. They will have done huge amounts of research into whether their target audience is engaged with the social issues that the tournament has raised, and whether those sentiments are factored in when making purchasing decisions. Gartner research revealed that 64% of US consumers don’t make purchase decisions based on their social or political beliefs – which will have come as a relief to marketers planning their World Cup campaigns. And while some brands have chosen to address the social issues in their ads, most have chosen to focus on the football, the competition and the fans, with no reference to the host country.

Media choice and the World Cup

As revealed in our Inflation Report update, published in October, inflation for offline media channels has been especially high this year – and that’s particularly true for TV. Teamed with the fact that media prices are always higher in Q4 than in the rest of the year, and that many brands are looking to invest with less waste, online will have been a winner in this year’s World Cup. In the UK, for example, while UK companies will still spend a record £9.5 billion ($11.3 billion) in Q4, the amount spent on offline outlets will decline, according to a report from The AA and WARC. Investment in search will rise 7.3% year-on-year, while the amount spent on traditional TV forecasting will fall by 0.6%.

World Cup advertising: an opportunity for all

The 2022 World Cup is the most controversial yet and is happening within a challenging global economic context. Brands are right to approach it with caution. However, there is no denying – especially after a few years of more low-key sports events – that a World Cup is not an opportunity brands want to allow to pass by, particularly in the lead-up to Christmas. As one industry insider said, ‘there’s no other media moment that lasts a month and gets a billion views worldwide’.

That said, there is an opportunity for those brands who choose to bypass the World Cup. Those brands who have invested more this quarter than they would normally in a difficult economic context may choose to reduce their spend during 2023, particularly in Q1. If this is the case, it represents an opportunity for their competitors to obtain higher share of voice and purchase media space last minute, which is often cheaper.

So whether you’re playing this quarter or sitting it out until 2023, there’s an opportunity for everyone to be a winner.

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