Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

A toxic World Cup

Updated Jun 21, 2018 03:25pm
While existing players are downplaying their campaigns, Chinese sponsors are ensuring unprecedented visibility.

World Cup Football fever is in full swing. Already, there has been the most famous botched penalty this decade (by Messi), the most famous drawn match (Brazil with Switzerland) and the most famous upset: Germany beaten by Mexico.

Make no mistake: few people are immune to football fever; it is hard to escape during a tournament. Suddenly everyone professes their love for Tunisia or Iceland (Third World angst against the First World morphs into a fierce desire for impossible results). It is even harder the months after, friends and colleagues and their nephews and nieces having shoulda-woulda-coulda discussions and building scenarios that would place the crown on their favourite team.

One used to think that the USA was immune to this: after all, they hardly had a team. Then World Cup football took place in 1994 and shortly thereafter, David and Victoria Beckham settled in Los Angeles. Decades later, something seems to have clicked: the southern belt of the USA, thanks to the large Hispanic population, seems to have become increasingly enamoured with the sport. Of course, the USA Women’s Team taking the soccer World Cup in 2015 helped. Surprised?


FIFA has not signed a new Western sponsor since 2011. Existing sponsors are downplaying their campaigns to remove the emphasis from the location of the World Cup.


However, none of that holds a candle to the irony of the tournament taking place in Russia – of all places – the former Communist hub playing host to the largest, most extravagant display of rampant capitalism. World Cup football is the biggest sporting event in the world, and the biggest marketing opportunity as well.

Think of it as a huge blank canvas: the players’ uniforms, the arenas, the primary, secondary and tertiary TV coverage – you are unlikely to find an ad-free pixel during any match.

To say that things are awkward between USA and Russia these days is an understatement. Association with tainted ‘brands’ such as Russia and FIFA has stopped some Western companies in their tracks. However, brands from other parts of the world, such as Chinese companies: Dalian Wanda, Hisense, Vivo and Mengniu Dairy, Qatar Airways, and Russia’s Gazprom have stepped in to capitalise on the opportunity. So, while the global ad-spend for 2018 will increase by $2.4 billion, it will be China leading the way, outspending the USA five to one.

However, it’s not all roses: the whole shebang has been slightly toxified. With the recent FIFA scandals, coupled with the tournament taking place in Russia, means that FIFA’s sponsorship revenue for the 2015-2018 cycle was $1.45 billion, down from $1.62 billion for 2011-2014, (which included the 2014 World Cup in Brazil). Take inflation into account and the picture becomes worse. Key sponsors such as Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Emirates and Castrol, among others, chose to stay away. The new crop of sponsors has merely mitigated the downslide, not reversed it.


It is a toxic brew of politics, brand consciousness and preconceptions driving business decisions. It is safe to say that the companies which have tackled the World Cup head-on have the perfect platform to launch themselves on the global stage.


FIFA has not signed a new Western sponsor since 2011. Existing sponsors are downplaying their campaigns to remove the emphasis from the location of the World Cup.

Chinese companies are set to have an unprecedented visibility, accounting for 39% of the ad deals. I bet none can miss the Vivo marketing, though some other names are less familiar, Chinese companies targeting the huge Chinese audience for football and not necessarily anyone else.

Part of the reason is the current obsession with political correctness and the toxic litigious atmosphere in the USA and other countries, which has resulted in a culture of a fine-toothed scrutiny of every ad, post, tweet, movie, trailer, statement, interview, show, album or a book. This scrutiny, due to its obsessive compulsive nature, inevitably finds something sexist, chauvinist, racist against a specific group and the purveyor has to sheepishly apologise and withdraw the piece. Understandably, the likes of Coca-Cola or Microsoft don’t want to lose a business deal in 2050 because they sponsored a tournament hosted by Russia in 2018.

It is a toxic brew of politics, brand consciousness and preconceptions driving business decisions. It is safe to say that the companies which have tackled the World Cup head-on have the perfect platform to launch themselves on the global stage. Western sponsors, which have missed Russia this year, will likely pass on Qatar in 2022, due to a host of preconceptions about the Middle East. The usual suspects are set to return in full force in 2026 when the tournament returns to the safe, politically correct shores of North America.

The trouble is that the rapidly rising middle class in China, Russia India and elsewhere isn’t going to wait eight years. In the age of the internet, everything moves at the speed of thought. These market’s obsession with Western brands is there right now, but may not survive the onslaught by newly surging brands from Asia (witness the cellphone market). More importantly, political correctness and support/lack thereof of a particular worldview is the farthest thing from a shopper’s mind.

By 2026, the Western brands may discover that they are the challengers to a plethora of rock-solid Asian brands.

Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.