• The FIFA World Cup is usually a huge event for advertisers, but this year, it’s mired in controversy due to Qatar’s questionable reputation when it comes to human rights.
  • Our media analysis found that non-profits such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International shaped the media conversation around the World Cup, while most of the sponsoring brands were criticised for keeping quiet or releasing bland statements.
  • We also found that migrant workers’ issues dominated the whole social media conversation, with Qatar being blamed for sportswashing in order to clean up its nation brand.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is drawing more and more criticism as allegations of everything from bribery and financial mismanagement to slavery and deadly work conditions continue to pile up.

These are not the kind of things which brands like Adidas or Coca-Cola typically like to associate themselves with. Yet when the tournament kicks off on November 20, their brands — along with several other globally recognised names — will be prominent.

So the ethical reservations surrounding this year’s World Cup in Qatar have posed a question: where do sponsors stand with this tournament? To see how the World Cup discussion was conducted in the media, we analysed 523 English-language articles published in the last two months. Here are our main takeaways:

1. It’s not a good deal to trade your reputation for brand exposure

On a brand awareness level, nothing beats the World Cup, with it a global festival of the most popular discipline in the world. A Nielsen report into the World Cup’s commercial prospects said it has the highest awareness of any sporting event.

But it’s also capable of papering over the cracks, and there definitely are some as far as recent host nations are concerned. With its teams now excluded from many prominent sports competitions worldwide, Russia hosted the event in 2018. It was a questionable outcome due to the nation’s image and corruption in its awarding – and Qatar has since followed.

Brands are facing a puzzle around how much you can be seen to articulate celebratory support for a tournament which is being played out in a country with such a dubious reputation as Qatar. Indeed, Human rights was the main topic in the whole conversation around the World Cup, with a bigger share of voice than anything related to sports:

Many media outlets remarked that beneath the tolerant, progressive image being projected by organisers are deep-rooted concerns that Qatar is not a nation deserving of FIFA’s greatest honour. Examples of abusive conduct and poor treatment stubbornly persist and remain fodder for news media outlets, especially in Europe, where the Qatar World Cup persists to be a source of protest and a lightning rod of objections for those that associate with it.

Against this backdrop, some of the world’s biggest brands rely on playing a positive role in culture, with an open-minded and appropriate position around social freedoms, cultural norms, liberty to express yourself and more. To simply appear blinkered and unmoved by the realities of the location would be to act tone-deaf to their consumers. Despite the lucrative awareness opportunity, brand perceptions can worsen if a sponsor backs a questionable athlete, team, or, in this case, an event.

Another key concern expressed by journalists was that all companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence on their operations in a region where migrant workers face well-documented risks during recruitment and employment.

Only Adidas, AB-InBev’s Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Qatar Airways were reported to provide any information at all, while FIFA partners – Wanda, Hyundai Kia Motor, Visa and QatarEnergy and Qatar World Cup sponsors – Hisense, McDonald’s, Vivo, Mengniu, Crypto and BYJU’s all failed to provide any details. Many commentators noted that those companies don’t really care about their reputation and focus simply on getting the brand out to as many people as possible.

2. Non-profits shaped the media conversation

We also found that human rights organisations dominated the media debate around the World Cup in terms of media impact.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and FairSquare earned their impact by writing to FIFA’s 14 corporate partners and World Cup sponsors urging them to provide compensation and other remedies to migrant workers and their families who suffered death or injury, wage theft or debt from illegal recruitment fees. The move came after an open letter was sent to FIFA president Gianni Infantino demanding at least $440m –  the same amount provided to teams participating in the tournament – in order to fund such a compensation scheme.

At the same time, to support the calls for action, Human Rights Watch launched the #PayUpFIFA campaign. In a statement published in September, the rights group said that four major sponsors – AB InBev/Budweiser, Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s – had expressed support for the proposed compensation. Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said that sponsors should use their “considerable leverage” to apply pressure on FIFA and Qatar to fulfil their responsibilities to workers.

The organisation strengthened its media presence by publishing a reporters’ guide to help support journalists to cover the issues that have overshadowed the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

By focusing its PR strategy on publishing a guide for reporters, Human Rights Watch managed to navigate the whole media conversation around the topics it deals with, and directed many journalists’ attention to the treatment of migrant workers and the discrimination against women and LGBTQ+ people.

3. Most of the sponsors are keeping quiet or issuing bland statements, while others tried to be “anti-sponsors”

Big brands have regularly engaged in value marketing – high-profile examples include Nike’s backing of American civil rights activist and NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick despite the agenda against what he stood for, and Ben & Jerry’s open support for LGBTQ+ marriage in the United States.

So it feels right for brands in this instance to take a stance on the social issues that are intrinsically linked with the World Cup in Qatar if they are going to be marketing their products during it. Using the tournament as a vehicle for sales and ignoring the controversy surrounding it could backfire – and especially so if the host nation picks up further negative attention during the event.

And yet, many of the sponsors now are keeping quiet – Visa, Hyundai-Kia, Wanda Group, Qatar Energy, Qatar Airways, Vivo, Hisense, Mengniu, Crypto and Byju’s were all mentioned in the media as they had offered no public support and had not responded to written requests to discuss tournament-related abuses. 

Others issued bland statements – for example, Coca-Cola made some human rights pledges, but you have to dig deep to find them. Many critics felt that such announcements point towards box-ticking exercises rather than a coordinated response to FIFA and Qatar.

There were also some brands that framed themselves as “anti-sponsors” – for instance, BrewDog attacked Qatar for its criminalisation of homosexuality, use of corporal punishment, and migrant workers dying in preparations for the games. Citing the “corruption, abuse and death” surrounding the host nation Qatar, the brewer’s CEO and co-founder James Watt took aim at tournament organiser FIFA, stating “this isn’t a World Cup. It’s a World F*Cup” and claiming Qatar won the opportunity to host the world’s biggest football event “through bribery” on an “industrial scale”.

This widely cited statement helped Watt emerge as the most influential CEO in the debate:

However, in a widely-shared image on social media, BrewDog beers were seen on sale in Qatari riyal currency (QAR), accompanied by a poster bearing the logo of the Qatar Distribution Company (QDC). Naturally, the company was accused of hypocrisy.

James Watt apologised, but BrewDog still suffered considerable damage to its reputation. In the grand scheme of things, the company hasn’t done much wrong, but the reaction is a cautionary tale in the world of modern business: consumers aren’t interested in ad campaigns and rhetoric, but in what you’re actually doing.

Meanwhile, another beer brand – Budweiser, which has been a World Cup sponsor since 1986 – also had some problems. Just two days before the tournament’s start, FIFA announced alcohol will be banned for World Cup fans at grounds, in a major and unprecedented volte-face. However, the prevailing opinion among industry analysts was that the ban will seriously limit Budweiser sales in the Gulf state, but will not derail the brand’s global campaign during the tournament. The company’s effort included gathering over 100 influencers from all over the world who were flown to Qatar to make content for their followers and the brand.

4. Social media users focused on migrant workers

Analysing the Twitter debate around the World Cup in the last 30 days, we found that the treatment of migrant workers was the most often discussed topic:

Many Twitter users shared that foreign workers lived in squalid accommodations, were forced to pay huge recruitment fees and had wages withheld and their passports confiscated so that Qatar could build seven stadiums for the World Cup finals as well as a new airport, metro system, series of roads and about 100 new hotels.

A big chunk of the debate focused on a viral Guardian article that said 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since it won its World Cup bid.

FIFA was also widely criticised on Twitter for having written to the 32 teams competing telling them to “now focus on the football”. It said the sport should not be “dragged” into ideological or political “battles”, or “hand out moral lessons”. In contrast, some European football associations – including those of England and Wales – were praised for saying that “human rights are universal and apply everywhere”.

Meanwhile, Twitter hosted an event at Al-Nassr’s Mrsool Park in the Saudi Arabian capital to take marketers through the importance and influence of football conversations. With 53 million football-related Tweets recorded so far this year, the event, titled #WhereFootballLives, encouraged brands to take advantage of trending topics related to the sport’s premier event that is watched by millions of fans globally.

But despite these efforts, most sponsoring brands, from McDonald’s to Adidas, were mentioned by Twitter users as supporting an oppressive regime in exchange for profit. For example, many shared that brands shouldn’t be allowed to cover themselves in rainbows during Pride Month, while sponsoring a worldwide event being held in an anti-queer country. As some users put it, it’s a display of how much some brands seem to treat queer issues as cynical marketing tools; rather than actual injustices of human rights. 

5. Qatar served as a prime example of sportswashing

For a number of commentators, the World Cup is a project designed to diversify Qatar’s economy, reduce its reliance on oil and earn itself influence among western nations. But for critics, it’s sportswashing – a term popularised by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe the use of sports by oppressive governments to legitimise their regimes. Traditional examples include the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under the Nazi regime, which Hitler hosted in an attempt to showcase German and Aryan superiority.

As an act of “sportswashing”, this winter’s World Cup fits squarely into these narratives. Playing into Orientalist notions of “tradition” versus “modernisation”, the tournament is designed to showcase a Qatari regime heading in the right direction and deserving of the world’s embrace.

The World Cup was framed as just one way Qatar is using its massive wealth to project influence. By buying sports teams, hosting high-profile events, and investing billions in European capitals — such as buying London’s The Shard skyscraper — Qatar has been integrating itself into international finance and a network of support.

But this was aimed at something more specific than burnishing Qatar’s international public image per se, according to some analysts – the real goal is to provide Qatar’s Western allies with an alibi for continuing the support that has been so crucial to the regime’s longevity. It is soft power as the currency that buys hard power, with the entire global football community recruited into the transaction.

As such, sceptics saw Qatar 2022 as an example of Western hypocrisy as well, with the Western brands sponsoring the tournament benefitting just as the regime does from the continued exploitation of migrant labour that is making the tournament possible. And to the extent that the tournament serves to sportswash authoritarianism, it also sportswashed authoritarianism that has long been a joint venture between the West and Qatar.

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