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The World Cup of Woke-Washing


The lead-up to a World Cup would typically pose immense marketing opportunities for brands. 70% of UK adults are expected to follow the tournament, and it is very rare that you get a chance to reach that many people in a single spot with a single message. Plus, with this being the first World Cup ever to fall in the so-called “golden quarter”, on the surface it would appear to be a brand manager’s goldmine. But it’s become a minefield. The angles available to leverage this World Cup have been significantly narrowed due to the many now-infamous controversies surrounding the host nation.

Firstly, reports have claimed that over 6,500 migrant labourers have died in the country since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. According to Human Rights Watch, Qatari authorities have not investigated the causes of deaths of thousands of the labourers and have conveniently labelled many of them as ‘death by natural causes’. This may indeed be true, assuming ‘natural causes’ means working illegally long hours doing hard physical labour in 40+ degree heat.

But as shoddy as they may be, it isn’t the labour laws that are causing consumers to turn their backs on this year’s competition. Nor is it the arguably more superficial cultural differences, such as Qatar’s strict rules on alcohol – although we are unlikely to see an ‘Official Beer of the Qatar World Cup’. The main issue lies in the antiquated moral values and political practices of the Qatari regime – principally in relation to homosexuality and women’s rights.

World Cups in the past have – at least ostensibly – been portrayed as moments for cultural diversity and global unity. But, particularly for Next Gen audiences, this year’s competition is a representation of intolerance and values (or lack thereof) that do not reflect their own. And arguments from cultural relativity tend to fall on deaf ears, as an appeal to tolerance to justify intolerance naturally feels a little logically incongruous.

For the Next Gen of sports fans, “shut up and dribble” no longer cuts it. For better or for worse, politics is in sport – as evidenced by Marcus Rashford’s philanthropic endeavours to do what politicians were either unable or unwilling to do during the height of the pandemic. Additionally, football has become a much more inclusive territory over the last decade or so; a move largely driven by the values of the Next Gen – values which just so happen to exclude the arrest and detention of human beings on the basis of their sexual orientation.

This creates a conundrum for brands. How can they benefit from the potential enormous exposure a World Cup offers without being accused of either hollow virtue-signalling or bold-faced hypocrisy? We needn’t explain the difficulties for a brand trying to go from celebrating Pride Month to lending support for, and indeed profiting from, a World Cup being held in a country in which being homosexual could wind you up in prison.

Let’s start with one of the official sponsors of the competition: Adidas. They’ve recently – and quite rightly, might I add – cut ties with Kanye West over his nonsensical, dangerous, antisemitic rhetoric. Yet they have opted to remain a sponsor of a World Cup that doesn’t exactly celebrate diversity and inclusion. Does the difference just come down to the level of public scrutiny Adidas have come under in each instance?

It does raise questions over whether Adidas’ purported moral stances come down to a rather cold cost/benefit analysis. Where the costs of not sacking Kanye were deemed to outweigh any upsides, those of being involved with a morally dubious World Cup were not. Following that line of thought, one could also question whether so-called brand values can be summed up as “whatever makes us money that we reckon we can get away with”.

Moving on from hypocrisy to woke-washing: Hummel have attracted criticism for their ‘toned-down’ (or tone deaf) kit for the Danish national team, which is supposedly a protest against Qatar and its human rights record – which is a little like protesting an EDL rally by going along, enjoying the free drinks, but secretly wearing BLM underpants. It has also been highlighted that Hummel, as well as many other manufacturers, produce their kits in locations that similarly have question marks around their own human rights records and labour laws. Whoops.

From a brand directly involved with the competition, to one tangentially implicated, to one that has sweet ‘eff all to do with it but is choosing to pipe up anyway in an erroneous attempt to curry some good favour. BrewDog, the David Brent of beer brands, have scored another PR own-goal while attempting to make themselves look, err, ‘punk’. Johnny Rotten would be rolling in his grave – and he isn’t even dead.

The latest gaff by the Alan Partridge of ales came in the form of some ‘anti-sponsorship’ ads for the Qatari World Cup, calling out the aforementioned human rights abuses. What the ads fail to mention, is that not only will BrewDog be hosting a fanzone for every England game, but they also continue to sell their Punk IPA in Qatar via a 3rd party distributor. I swear they’re not even trying at this point. Although perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising coming from the Richard Madeley of mead (that one was a stretch) who have previously run an ‘anti-advertising’ campaign with the help of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the UK’s biggest ad agencies. But we’re not here just to have a go at BrewDog. We’ll leave that to the 75 former employees who have accused the company of having a “toxic attitude” and operating a “culture of fear”. Alright, now we’re actually done.

Between Adidas’ hypocrisy, Hummel’s tokenism and… whatever the f*ck BrewDog are trying to do, one can see why so many brands are left scratching their heads over this world cup. And the available insight and advice doesn’t offer much help either. This article, for example, claims that brands need to focus on showing “diversity, equality and sustainability”, citing that 61% of fans want to see more gender equality in particular. While arguably admirably motivated, one would imagine this might feel rather hollow when set within the context of a world cup being held in a country in which women have to ask their male guardian’s permission to get a driving licence, pursue higher education or leave the country.

Perhaps we ought to wonder if we aren’t asking the wrong questions. This is the most political world cup ever, and its grubby connotations are now so heavily entrenched that they will become inextricably bound to any brand seeking to profit from it. This is being approached largely as a practical conundrum, when really it is a matter of ethics. If we begin with the question “How can we benefit from this without pissing too many people off?”, then we have already eschewed any pretence of brand, or indeed moral, values. In reality, the only way to really make a stand is to not even watch the tournament. And it doesn’t count if you’re Scottish.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to leave you on such a kumbaya conclusion. If you are remotely interested in football, you will most likely be watching it. As will everyone else – despite all the issues surrounding the competition, there isn’t much of an appetite to boycott it. Consumers don’t want virtue-signalling, but nor do they want a statement on the geopolitical issues surrounding the tournament. Even with its myriad issues, this World Cup will still provide an opportunity for some much-needed escapism during a time of political and economic instability.

What we need is a move away from milquetoast moralising that we aren’t willing to back up. It’s very easy to have ‘values’ when they align with what you want to do anyway. Some more militant members of the Next Gen may consider silence to be violence, but speaking empty words can be far more damaging. Brands must embody their values year-round with sincerity and authenticity in their words as well as their actions – and not just pipe up when there’s a cultural event or social cause they fancy hanging their proverbial multi-coloured hat on in a shallow attempt to make a quick pound note or garner some unearned good feeling.

…Alternatively: just do the opposite of whatever BrewDog are doing.