The £100m Qatar whitewash: how UK advertisers put profit before protest

<span>Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

More than £100m will be spent by brands hoping to cash-in on World Cup fever, but when it comes to taking host Qatar to task over its human rights record protest marketing has taken a back seat to sales targets.

In the run-up to kick off of the football tournament in Qatar criticism of the gulf state was akin to shooting at an open goal.

The singer Robbie Williams took flak for performing at the opening ceremony while former England captain David Beckham, who has historically supported gay fans and players, faced a brand backlash over a £150m deal to be an ambassador for Qatar 2022.

Among the teams participating, Australia struck first, posting a video featuring 16 players raising concerns over the treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people. England and Wales made much of a plan to defy football’s world governing body Fifa by wearing the rainbow OneLove armband, a symbol of equality and LGBTQ+ rights, before backing down just before their first match after warnings players could be yellow carded for doing so.

The stage was set for UK brands to use the marketing amplification provided by the world’s biggest sporting event to weigh in and affirm their ethical credentials. But it didn’t happen. Ad agencies estimate between £85m and £100m will be spent on advertising around the World Cup across all UK media during the tournament, but, like the England players, brands have shied away from confrontation with Qatar.

Related: Four people arrested as part of inquiry into Gulf state buying EU influence

Their silence is all the more surprising given many World Cup sponsors are usually only too keen to show their support for gay rights. Coca-Cola was an official sponsor of London and Brighton Pride 2022, Adidas has launched a range of Pride-themed products, McDonald’s and Budweiser have branded buns and beer bottles, while Hyundai released an ad earlier this year boasting the carmaker’s support for the LGBTQ+ community “not just during Pride month, but 365 days a year”.

At this year’s Cannes Lions, the world’s biggest and most prestigious advertising awards, a record 27 of the 31 top prizes went to campaigns that had a social cause or injustice at its heart.

“The hypocrisy is ridiculous,” says one ad industry executive. “Whether it be organic farming, saving the oceans, women’s or gay rights, mental health, knife crime etc these sorts of campaigns are everywhere. Many of the brands advertising during the World Cup are super-progressive, they have strong environmental, social and governance policies – but none of it applies when it comes to associating with, or highlighting, Qatar.”

Advertising experts had certainly expected an anti-Qatar marketing drive. There were precedents – during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, some brands did make a stand. Paddy Power, for example, donated £10,000 to an LGBT-focused charity for every goal scored by Russia.

“While a survey carried out by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that half of consumers would respect brands more for addressing issues around the World Cup being hosted in Qatar, we have seen surprisingly few brands take the opportunity to do so,” said Nick Breen, a partner at the law firm Reed Smith. “Brands want to avoid perpetuating an anti-World Cup association no matter how honourable the intentions may be. It can be difficult for brands to walk the line between standing up for their values publicly and being perceived as being the morality police by their audience.”

On the field, as the goals and excitement have mounted, with the tournament offering the hope of England making a semi-final, Qatar has transitioned from being embroiled in a human rights storm to destination football, leaving advertisers to focus on selling beer, soft drinks, clothing, cars and financial services.

“The reality is that fans and brands alike will acquiesce, because they always do,” says James Kirkham. “There is a certain suspended state and the world comes together. “Ad agencies would struggle to fight this sentiment. To recommend a contrary purpose-driven approach to their clients is beyond bold because it is swimming against such a tide. The strength of the swell of opinion would immediately risk ridicule or at least mean you get lost in the noisy euphoria.”

The only major brand to break ranks has been BrewDog, which launched an “anti-sponsor” campaign questioning whether Qatar passes muster then North Korea could be considered as a World Cup host, prompting immediate criticism and ridicule given well-publicised allegations of poor treatment of brewer’s own staff.

A total of 64 games will be played to decide the winner of this year’s World Cup, making television the biggest medium for reaching huge audiences. Fifa estimates the tournament will attract more than 5 billion viewers globally, up from 3.57 billion for Russia 2018.

Brands are free to piggy back on the event with alternative messages to the official sponsors.

Nike and Pepsi are both running global campaigns, the usual quadrennial gatecrash of advertising designed to undermine official sponsors Adidas and Coca-Cola. But their ads, feature global stars Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappé, have steered away from any overtly ethical messaging.

A spokesperson for ITV, which is jointly broadcasting the World Cup with the ad-free BBC, says that it would run TV ads critical of Qatar as long as they pass muster with the clearance body Clearcast and the UK watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority.

Under the Communications Act 2003 policed by the regulator Ofcom, political advertising is banned from broadcast media, such as TV and radio, although it is allowed on nonbroadcast sites, which is why Brewdog’s posters were allowed to stay up.

And UK broadcasters are free to promote upcoming shows in advertising slots, as it is deemed to be editorial content rather than commercial space.

In 2014, Channel 4, which held the TV broadcast rights to the Winter Paralympics in Sochi rebranded its on-screen logo with rainbow colours and launched a TV ad campaign called “Gay Mountain” in protest at Russia’s anti-gay laws.

“Channel 4’s remit is to challenge, represent and champion minorities,” says David Abraham, its chief executive at the time. “It felt as an organisation that it was the right thing for us to do independently.”

However, such a bite the hand that feeds you tactic is not one that management at ITV is likely to have entertained when it developed its own World Cup promotion, with its rights relationship with Fifa likely to be worth as much as £70m in advertising across the tournament, according to a media agency estimate. But Fifa is a different organisation to the International Paralympic Committee.

“The Paralympic committee and organisation were supportive,” says Abraham. “They were promoting a progressive agenda towards minorities and had an agenda around expanding accessibility and changing attitudes in society generally. It was an editorial decision we took with the full support of our board.”