Surfing and alcohol sponsorship: Do we really care?
What place is there for ethics in the modern business landscape? How many businessman would forego dollars and ignore the bottom line to do 'the right thing'?
Strange questions indeed. Even stranger when you consider I was sitting at a surfing press conference when I flashed upon them. There on a sunny Autumn morning in a glass-walled room overlooking Bondi Beach I sat. Around me were politicians, the odd celebrity and a gaggle of surfing administrators. A feeling of social detachment plus the serene location made it an ideal setting for some Big Thinking.
We'd all been invited to Bondi Icebergs to listen to Surfing Australia's latest public statement. It was touted as a surprise, a 'significant announcement' said the press release resoundingly, and considering the healthy state of Surfing Australia there was reason to believe it could've been something huge.
The announcement wasn't huge, but nor was it trivial either. The assembled were informed by CEO Andrew Stark that Surfing Australia had become the latest sporting organisation to join the Be The Influence initiative. Created by the Australian National Preventive Health Agency the broad-ranging program aims to curb binge drinking in young people by reaching them through sport. Surfing was the last of 15 sports on the program.
On stage Stark spoke effusively of the benefits. "This is a monumental partnership for our sport," he said of the new arrangement, "it will provide a serious boost to our various programs Australia-wide."
Not only did Stark celebrate the support Surfing Australia will receive, much was made of how the government initiative will replace all existing alcohol sponsorship of Surfing Australia and its state branches. Effective immediately there would be no alcohol advertising at Surfing Australia events, competitions or in their publications.
Before handing the microphone over to the next speaker Stark made one last point. "The anti-binge drinking message that we will promote to our community is something that we all believe in." It was less a press conference platitude than anything yet spoken and that's because it didn't sound like spin but an honest declaration of ethics.
Stark was applauded by those in the crowd and later by many who read the associated press release. Binge drinking is an issue, they said, it should be addressed by those who wield power. The consensus being that alcohol advertising is detrimental to young people.
Someone who unquestionably believes in that causal relationship is 2003 Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley. In 2011 Stanley established the Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB), an independent body that reviews alcohol advertising in Australia. The AARB operates as a counterweight to the alcohol industry-supported Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code addressing what Stanley says is a "tsunami of alcohol promotion to which our children are exposed."
Since they were created the AARB has fielded a number of complaints about alcohol advertising in surfing. Last year Jim Beam's National Surf Tag competition had a complaint against them upheld, as did Carlton Dry at this year's Quiksilver Pro (the offending ad featured Kelly Slater). In May 2012 a Surfing Australia sponsor was the target of a complaint fielded by the AARB.
Carlton United Breweries has been one of Surfing Australia's most lucrative and loyal sponsors having supported them for nine years. In that time CUB has run many promotions but it was a recent campaign that drew the ire of a complainant and subsequently the AARB. At issue was alcohol advertising on the Surfing Australia website, a site that also contains links and information targeted specifically at young kids.
Professor Mike Daube is the spokesman for the AARB and is damning in his assessment of current alcohol advertising. "The drinking patterns of young Australians are cause for concern with many starting to drink at younger ages and drinking to get drunk. Exposure to alcohol advertising influences young people's attitudes and behaviours in regard to alcohol." With ads for Victoria Bitter adjacent to those for Vegemite Surf Groms it's little wonder Surfing Australia fell foul of the AARB.
Of the Surfing Australia sponsorship Daube says, "It is simply inappropriate that sports such as surfing were being used to promote alcohol to young people."
In the AARB's complaint report it's noted that CUB were contacted for comment but didn't reply. The AARB's final action was to request that the advertiser reconsider their sponsorship of Surfing Australia. Lacking the legal power to enforce their decisions the AARB can only rely on the media and public pressure, something CUB resisted. Victoria Bitter continued their support of Surfing Australia and advertising on their website.
When I brought Surfing Australia's new anti-alcohol stance to Daube's attention he said he, "welcomed the decision of Surfing Australia. This is a very positive move, and shows yet again that sports can succeed without being a part of alcohol promotion."
Except it isn't as simple as that.
Jennifer Howard is Media Relations Manager at CUB and her response to the Surfing Australia situation is illuminating. "As business partners we could understand why they would take substantially more money offered from a Government Agency so we were happy to stand aside."
Interestingly, she also admitted that while sponsorship of Surfing Australia has currently ceased, CUB "maintain a product supply arrangement" at all Surfing Australia events. In short, they provide the beer.
Now, it's all well and good to decry alcohol sponsorship when the government is stepping in as substitute – especially when they offer "substantially more money" - but what will happen when the budget changes? At present Surfing Australia's Be The Influence initiative is only slated for one year; anything beyond that is uncertain. Also, the Federal Government is likely to change in October which may have bearing on current government spending.
Will Surfing Australia accept sponsorship from alcohol companies again? Or will the surfing public maintain their resistance and apply pressure through the AARB? Beyond all of that, do we really care about alcohol advertising in surfing? What is the ethical position to take here?
Surfing Australia and anyone who backed their current anti-alcohol stance should consider these questions because, as Jennifer Howard states, when the government program expires Carlton United Breweries, "would look at doing something again [with Surfing Australia] in the future but it would have to be the right property, brand fit and price."
Andrew Stark was approached for comment in this article but declined.