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COMMENT

26/6/2014
Normally when a controversial incident occurs at a major sporting event official sponsors tend to keep their heads down and issue bland statements along the lines of ‘we will await the outcome of the official enquiry before commenting’.

In the case of the alleged Luis Suárez bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, however, official sponsors have been quick to use the situation in their activation campaigns.

McDonald’s, for example, suggested that the Uruguayan striker should have tucked into a Big Mac if he was hungry (Hola @luis16suarez, si te quedaste con hambre vení a darle un mordisco a una BigMac), whereas Bud Light tweeted an image of someone trying to open a beer bottle with their teeth and used the line: ‘Relax, they’re twist off. #biting #ITAvsURU’.

Johnson & Johnson’s Listerine tweeted: ‘We recommend a good swish after grabbing a bite of Italian’.

Non-sponsoring brands were also quick to jump on the band wagon with several following the theme including Snickers; ‘Next time you’re hungry just grab a Snickers… More satisfying than Italian.’

Philips’s Sonicare dental product; ‘Perfect if you have a bit of Italian stuck between your teeth’.

While there were also less witty versions from the likes of Trident Gum, Nando’s, Pizza Express and Domino’s Pizza.

There are several interesting issues here. The first is that the sponsors were unconcerned about waiting to see if Suárez was found guilty by FIFA. Nor were they concerned about any potential embarrassment to the rights holder by making such statements.

Finally, they weren’t worried about being seen as in some way above the fray as official partners who tend to keep their distance from controversy and tread a safe path.

The reason for this is the power of social media to respond instantly to incidents and grab global attention. If the sponsors didn’t do it, they knew that others would, so they had to act bravely and quickly and this has clearly worked.

It is an encouraging development for the sponsorship industry because so often in the past having official rights seems to have limited the courage of sponsors to have fun and take risks. In the new media world taking a safe stance could ultimately devalue official rights and potentially make sponsorship less attractive.

For Luis Suárez’s actual sponsors, however, the issue is certainly far from amusing. Adidas, a FIFA partner, has a personal endorsement deal with the player and is reported to be meeting to discuss the situation with a strong possibility that it could exercise its morality clause to terminate the deal. Likewise gambling site 888poker says it is reviewing its contract with the player. The latter has, to an extent less to lose. Adidas is a global brand with a big reputation and Suárez is a small part of its endorsement portfolio. It can certainly afford to drop him without any cost.

From a business point of view, 888poker could consider hanging on for a while. Online betting brands need awareness first and foremost and the company is already in the news because of the story. If it fires Suárez now that will pretty much be an end of its brand exposure, whereas as it could justify waiting until FIFA has made its decision and remain in the news for a while longer.

Related content:

Report: Sports Sponsorship & the Law

Comment: Can sponsors claim money back from Lance Armstrong?

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