Coca-Cola (KO), Visa (V), Adidas (ADDYY) and Emirates airlines all made statements critical of corruption at FIFA, world soccer's governing body, over the weekend in an unheard of advertiser revolt. If FIFA boss Sepp Blatter is eventually forced to step down, it will be in large part because his longest business partners -- Coke has been a FIFA sponsor in one way or another since 1950 -- have rebelled against him.
The statements all urged FIFA to take steps to clear up allegations that 10 of its 24 executive committee members accepted bribes in exchange for their votes on the selection of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments. The 2018 contest went to Russia; 2022 went to Qatar -- a nation without a serious football history or infrastructure, and an inhospitable climate for outdoor field games.
The moves are another example of the strange power that advertisers and sponsors wield when they reflect their consumers' views politically. Consider:
- Advertisers recently pushed Glenn Beck out of his Fox News Channel show after he called President Obama a racist.
- Nascar's chief marketing officer has taken a stand against the flying of the Confederate flag at racetracks.
- Broadcaster Steven Cohen lost his job at Fox Soccer Channel after his views on the deaths of 96 people in a crowd crush at Hillsborough stadium in England triggered an advertiser boycott
- Some Western brands are devoting money and resources to wooing Muslim customers in the Arab world, in part to help normalize life in societies that have been distorted by decades of dictatorship and religious fundamentalism.
- Tiger Woods' sponsors abandoned him after his sex scandal, sending a strong signal to athletes that there are limits to advertisers' tolerance of antisocial behavior.
Coke: The current allegations being raised are distressing and bad for the sport. We have every expectation that FIFA will resolve this situation in an expedient and thorough manner.Until now, Blatter had reason to be complacent. FIFA's governing structure is baffling -- it's based in Switzerland and is composed of various regional footballing bodies. To become its president would require an individual spend years climbing up their own soccer administration's governing body before moving up a regional structure and, eventually, to FIFA.
Adidas: The negative tonality of the public debate surrounding FIFA is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners.
Emirates: Emirates, like all football fans around the world, are disappointed with the issues that are currently surrounding the administration of this sport.
... We hope that these issues will be resolved as soon as possible and the outcome will be in the interest of the game and sport in general.
Visa: The current situation is clearly not good for the game and we ask that FIFA take all necessary steps to resolve the concerns that have been raised.
But it is the sponsors who hold the purse strings in football. Adidas funds U.S. Major League Soccer to the tune of $200 million, for instance. Coca-Cola has had a formal association with FIFA since 1974 and has had stadium advertising at every FIFA World Cup since 1950. So when those companies use phrases like "neither good for football nor for FIFA" or "bad for the sport," they're not just talking about a rash of bad publicity in the headlines. They carry a double meaning. They could be referring to Blatter himself. They have every right to criticize FIFA, too -- each World Cup is a massive media event. It raises adspend on a global basis and its absence crushes the stock of ad sales companies in years inbetween. Blatter serves at their pleasure.
As such, the advertisers are properly reflecting the view of their football fan consumers -- no one who follows football has any respect for Blatter. At best, people are baffled by his presence atop FIFA. At worst he's regarded as a Machiavellian crook.
Whether Blatter realizes that his paymasters have started the clock ticking -- he recently said, "Crisis? What is a crisis?" -- remains to be seen.
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