The BBC talk about Qatar while the advertisers want you to forget the World Cup hosts

World Cup sponsors flag in Qatar Credit: Alamy
World Cup sponsors flag in Qatar Credit: Alamy

World Cup advertising is everywhere. The likes of Nike, McDonalds, Adidas (whose ad features Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Achraf Hakimi, Son Heung-Min, Jude Bellingham, Pedro ‘Pedri’ González López, Serge Gnabry, Stormzy and inevitably, Lionel Messi), Müller Rice (with Declan Rice dancing and ‘singing’ “Rice, Rice, baby”), Beats by Dre (starring Bukayo Saka), Lucozade Sport, Coca-Cola, Pringles, Paddy Power with Crouchy and many more.

They’ve spent big on these ads and they’re going to use them, regardless of the public mood. Big business has put its sexy face on and is stripping just for us.

Brewdog are taking a rebel stand, with their ‘proud anti-sponsor’ ‘Easy, Sleep, Bribe Football’ ad campaign. Although they’re showing the games in their pubs, at least they are doing something to stand out rather than just pretending everything is hunky dory, with footballers still doing silly things.

That looks like a better commercial decision than just pretending the bad stuff never happened. Those Budweiser ads look like they were made for a different tournament, one where they’re not banned from selling the beer in the stadiums.

Because the fact is, many fans – what percentage is unknowable but if anecdote is worth anything, I have yet to meet anyone who has got their usual World Cup buzz on, at least not yet – are not in a mood to be especially receptive.

As we go into the early stages, at least, this is not a good environment to sell in. If your customer base is already at best sceptical about the tournament, you risk that rubbing off on your brand. Brand awareness doesn’t exist in isolation, it’s always in context and if that context becomes toxic, the poison leaks into everything associated with it. And no advertiser wants that. They pay for placement and being placed next to the word Qatar is not where they’d choose to be.

This is why advertisers are being advised, according to Campaign magazine, not to mention the word Qatar in their ads. Presumably they’ve focus-grouped this and found the word itself triggers a negative response. It is a byword for human rights abuses in most people’s minds, so everyone is risking staining their reputation with the blood that drips from Qatar’s hands.

Mention the World Cup, sure, but don’t say the Q word and under no circumstances use its creepy ghost mascot, which makes it feel as though the whole competition is being haunted by the spirits of the dead.

Companies are already annoyed that the tournament is being held at this time of the year, just when they want to throw resources at Christmas advertising. Seasonality is everything in marketing and December Is Christmas and nothing but Christmas, not a bit of Christmas and a bit of World Cup football. With the final on December 18, right in the teeth of the festive ad blitzkrieg, they risk their expensive ads getting lost in the churn or people simply being distracted by their plans for the holidays, or distracted from Christmas by the football.

It’s not a normal World Cup, no matter how much all these long-prepared and paid-for ads might wish otherwise. And some brands are sitting it out, fearing it is too controversial and too messy to try and cut a path through it all. Others are just cutting back on how much World Cup-related advertising they’re doing compared to what they’d do in a normal World Cup year.

On TV and radio they’ve got all their packages made and ready to go. The slow-motion replays, the commentary clips, all pushing football’s best priapic buttons, all trying to get momma hot one more time with feeling. Maybe even Des Lynam is brushing up on his Rudyard Kipling.

The context in which this tournament is being played had to be set and it was set so well by Gary Lineker et al, but it underlined how different this tournament is. Advertisers can’t be pleased. They didn’t pay the big bucks to embrace a tournament so drenched in negativity. They didn’t hook up with Fifa to be devalued by Johnny Infant’s mad rants.

The social media hate towards Lineker and Alex Scott was out of the traps quickly. The ‘stick to the football’ oversensitive, shivering Farage-ified snowflakes are nothing if not predictable and will find plenty to get off on being angry about in the next month.

Some could do with understanding what the word ‘hypocrisy’ means. Saying no-one should take money from Qatar’s government and then taking money from Qatar’s government, that’s hypocrisy. Being paid by the BBC to go to Qatar and do your job, saying the regime is problematic in some respects, is not hypocritical. And actually, quite brave as you might fear there’ll be a knock at the door in the middle of the night. Incidentally, when did Alan Shearer acquire such impressive gravitas? He was wonderful, as was the whole thing.

But all of this grizzling is no good to advertisers either. No-one wants to push ads to appeal to the angry people who don’t understand what hypocrisy means and no amount of Declan Rice dancing is going to wipe away all their spittle-flecked faux fulminations.

It’s all more bad vibes to prick the brand ambassador balloon and remind us of things no advertiser wants us to be reminded about.

Even so, they’re all doing their best to induce our pre-installed must-watch-football software to kick in. The Pied Piper is playing a tune and they hope we must follow, even if all of us must be tired of seeing Messi in adverts by now.

Yes we know it’s like listening to people laughing while the screams of the oppressed are still audible, but never mind that because, look, here’s Jack Grealish delivered to your house in a box.

Welcome to the World Cup 2022. Just don’t say where it’s being held.

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