Saturday 25 March 2017

No insurance policy for media's brand new conundrum

Tommy Conlon

There are plenty of examples, God knows, but this particular corporate mission statement suddenly became even more absurd last week.

Given what we know now, it is almost a miniature comic masterpiece.

"Sport is a great foundation of our country and our nation's identity. It creates strong communities and builds long-standing friendships that reflects the values that we at Aviva wholly embrace: those of teamwork, trust, respect and recognition." (Source: Aviva Group Ireland website.)

Last Wednesday, the company announced that 950 jobs would be cut from its Irish operations. Staff were apparently left in a state of confusion and fear. If senior management were to be measured, as sportsmen routinely are, on teamwork, trust and respect, one imagines they wouldn't be let inside the dressing room door. But never mind the staff, it's the brand that counts. Hence the decision, in February 2009, to pay €44m for a ten-year lease on the naming rights to the redeveloped stadium hitherto known universally as Lansdowne Road.

The stadium was first opened to spectators in 1872. In time it became a fixture in the national consciousness, amassing through its social life and sporting heritage generations of stories and memories. Then 137 years later, it acquired its new name.

And that name belonged to . . . an insurance company. The dead hand, the grey pallor, the palsied smile of . . . an insurance company. Albeit an insurance company that "wholly" embraced teamwork, trust and respect. But for some reason, despite these reassurances, sports fans did not go dancing in the streets at this news.

In fact, it stuck in the craw of a lot of people. Lansdowne Road was now to be known as . . . the Aviva Stadium? With the stroke of a pen another place in the popular imagination, another fragment of public space, had been bought, branded and privatised.

The new stadium cost an estimated €411m. The Government pitched in with €191m. And for €4m per year a carpetbagging multinational would piggyback on all that history, and all that public money, to impose its brand on any citizen with even a passing interest in sport. And it grated just a little bit more last week when Aviva's top executives swanned into Dublin, announced their redundancy plan, and then got out as fast as they could. It begged a lot of questions. For example, who are these people? And how come they got to muscle in on a slice of Irish life, just like that?

But there is a more specific question, one feels, for people in the sports writing and broadcasting community. Are we expected to toe the line every time some competition, venue or event is branded? We are never asked or consulted; it is just assumed apparently that we will dutifully namecheck the latest sponsor, and ask no awkward questions.

It seems that we have been enveloped into the corporate machinery of contemporary sport, and we have surrendered without a shot being fired. Why should I, or anyone in this line of work, help promote the Aviva brand, just because the IRFU and the FAI have taken their money? Are we complicit in enhancing this company's image every time we mention its name in a match report, while it simultaneously sacks nearly 1,000 people?

It's not just Aviva, obviously. The premier club competition in European rugby is the Heineken Cup. This is its official name. There is not even a fig leaf, a formulation such as the Heineken European Cup, or the European Rugby Cup, Sponsored by Heineken. It is not just branded by a beer company, it is owned by a beer company.

The competition is now 15 years old. A generation of young fans has internalised, without even knowing, a relationship between alcohol and rugby. It has been normalised. They have been conditioned to the point where one doubts if they even question it. A brewing company has used rugby as a direct gateway to its next generation of customers. Once again there is the uneasy feeling that we as sports writers and broadcasters have been stooges in all of this -- complicit, perhaps without realising, in the marketing of alcohol to children.

Ten years ago, the World Health Organisation addressed this issue. "One source of major concern is the efforts made by the alcohol beverage industry to commercialise sport and youth culture by extensive promotion and sponsorship." It recommended, and still does, "that no form of (alcohol) advertising (be) specifically addressed to young people, for instance through the linking of alcohol to sports."

In her book No Logo the Canadian writer Naomi Klein documented the relentless colonisation by global brands of every conceivable space, from sports arenas to streets and schools, and into the mind of the private citizen -- aka the consumer. "This corporate obsession with brand identity," she writes, "is waging a war on public and individual space . . . In the process, virtually nothing has been left unbranded."

For many people this is not an issue at all. And that's fair enough. But it has become an issue for those of us at the interface between sport and sponsorship. We are obliged, surely, to at least examine our role.

In the meantime, Lansdowne Road: you know, it still has a grand old ring to it all the same.

thecouch@independent.ie

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