Trolls set to jump on mega sporting events of 2018

January 03, 2018 11:47
The official match ball for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Photo: Reuters

This year is going to be a festival of mega sporting events, with football’s World Cup, the winter Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games all taking place. As is the norm, there will be a portfolio of commercial partners and sponsors associated with the events, whom the organizers of each competition will be seeking to protect through various means.

Such partners and sponsors make a significant financial contribution to the events' revenue streams, but nowadays they have increasingly come under attack from rivals. Typically, an official sponsor will pay millions of dollars for the exclusive right to be associated with the likes of the World Cup. In turn, organizers will use various means (in the case of the Olympics, by passing local legislation) to prevent this investment being undermined or attacked by other companies and brands.

Two of the most striking recent examples of a rival seeking to undermine an official sponsor took place at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, when Dutch beer brand Bavaria perpetrated high-profile stunts that left the world talking about them rather than the official event beer, Budweiser. This form of attack has become known in marketing terms as "ambushing", a term derived from the tactics of warfare in which a combatant takes advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack an unsuspecting enemy from a concealed position.

Despite the somewhat sinister labeling, ambushing has become a familiar part of the global sports landscape with some corporations seeing it as a legitimate response to the growing costs of acquiring official sponsorship rights. Indeed, it has been common in recent years for some of the most innovative and eye-catching mega-event-related marketing campaigns to have been created by ambushers. For example, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has become renowned for its cheeky attacks on official event sponsors.

However, while ambush marketing up to this point has essentially been a commercially focused activity involving businesses, the current state of the world tends to suggest that its limits will be tested and redefined this year. Over the last decade, event sponsorship has shifted eastwards, with organizations that have their origins in the Middle East, Russia and East Asia having taken over from Western corporations as the main sponsors of the world’s biggest sporting events.

Take the World Cup as an example of this; four of FIFA’s seven global partners (Gazprom, Qatar Airways, Wanda and Hyundai/Kia) and three of its five World Cup sponsors (Hisense, Vivo and China Mengniu Dairy) fit this profile. Significantly, several of these sponsors are either state-owned entities, or else (in the case of the Chinese corporations) are from an economic system where the hidden hand of government is never too far away. These are not sponsorships in the way we have previously known them; they have political dimensions which often signify them as instruments of soft power.

As this year’s tournament kicks off in Russia, it is therefore hard to imagine Gazprom (a state-owned natural gas company) being ambushed on home soil. With the robust Vladimir Putin in office and keen to transmit a muscular image of his country, the Bavaria-style ambushes we have seen in past World Cups are highly unlikely to repeat themselves across the streets of the host nation. One presumes that an ambush attack on Gazprom, and for that matter Alfa Bank (a domestic financial institution that is a one-off sponsor of the event), would be seen by the government in Moscow as an attack on Russia itself, its institutions and the country’s messaging around the event.

To protect themselves, ambush marketers may need to move their surprise (commercial) attacks offshore. Hence, we are more likely to witness the high-jinx pranks of those such as Paddy Power either on the streets of countries beyond Russia, or else played out through viral campaigns on social media.

During the 2016 UEFA European Championship in France, British frozen food retailer Iceland successfully trolled its way through the tournament using social media posts targeting everything from the England national team to Cristiano Ronaldo. Iceland’s campaign frequently made for humorous tournament interludes, attracting the attention of millions of social media users with its witty jibes. Surely Iceland and other businesses will repeat the strategy again this summer?

This could prove to be problematic for them, as Russia and its security apparatus may take the view that trolling by western corporations is an implicit declaration of ideological warfare. Recent revelations of industrial-scale doping in Russian sport have been interspersed by the Fancy Bears, a hacking group believed to be of Russian origin and with close links to state entities. This has resulted in high-profile, successful athletes from across the world being implicated in drugs scandals including the likes of British Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

Trolling any aspect of the Russian World Cup could antagonize Moscow; consequently, perpetrators must remain vigilant to a range of potential responses, including the possibility of hacks and counter-trolling on social media.

With Russia already suspected of having interfered in, for example, the US presidential election, one wonders in this context how other commercial aspects of World Cup will play out, too. Gazprom sits alongside American corporations Coca-Cola, Visa, Budweiser and McDonald's in FIFA’s sponsorship portfolio. Should we expect Russian trolls to undermine rival sponsors while aggrandizing Gazprom and Alfa Bank? For that matter, might the United States engage in similar activities?

In such an unpredictable, highly politicized global operating environment, many World Cup sponsors have already been stalling on decisions about how best to utilize their event association. With the potential threats facing them, it is likely that ambushers are being somewhat reserved too. Qatar 2022 promises more of the same, especially if the regional tensions in the Gulf continue. More surreptitious means of associating with the event are therefore likely, suggesting that during Russia 2018 the trolls are likely to jump on the ambushers.

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Budweiser is one of the sponsors of 2018 FIFA World Cup. Retired footballer David Seaman of England (left) and Cafu of Brazil pose next to the Man of the Match trophy presented by Budweiser for the event. Photo: Reuters
Hisense becomes an official sponsor of FIFA World Cup 2018. Hisense president Liu Hongxin and FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura at the announcement ceremony. Photo: Xinhua

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.