Qatar is a minefield for World Cup promoters. A team has already lost a sponsor

CNN Business

Billions of people watch the FIFA World Cup every four years, a tantalizing opportunity for advertisers who want to capitalize on the feel-good fervor of the world’s biggest sporting event. But this year, it’s a reputational minefield for some of the world’s biggest brands.

Controversies over Qatar’s human rights record have dominated early coverage of the event, requiring advertisers to tiptoe around criticism of the treatment of migrant workers and the country’s criminalization of homosexuality.

“There is a real concern about brand safety,” said Liz Duff, head of business and operations at Total Media, a London-based agency. “That’s why the ads support the teams rather than the venue.”

Even that may not be easy, however. FIFA’s decision to punish players who wear “OneLove” bracelets in order to promote inclusion and oppose discrimination has sparked a backlash. On Tuesday, the German supermarket chain Rewe ended its association with the German football association, calling the ban “scandalous” and “absolutely unacceptable.”

Fears of a global recession are also pushing companies to cut advertising budgets. And because the tournament is taking place in the lead up to the winter break, rather than during the summer months, they are dealing with conflicting priorities.

Sport’s biggest stage gets messy
Whatever happens, the month-long extravaganza is going to be huge for sports fans and brands. Forecasts indicate that companies like Ford (F), T-Mobile (TMUS), Coca-Cola (KO) and Samsung could spend $2 billion on promotions.

It’s easy to see why they’re interested. In 2018, the World Cup attracted a record 3.6 billion viewers. More than 1.1 billion people watched the final live.

Given the high levels of engagement, companies are keen to capitalize on the hype and spirit of camaraderie associated with the World Cup.

Coca-Cola’s campaign called “Believing is Magic” shows a woman drinking a Coke who suddenly finds herself involved in a huge street party. Nike (NKE) has imagined that scientists come together to create a multiverse, where the best soccer players of all time can face each other. Lays owner Frito-Lay invited David Beckham, Peyton Manning and Mia Hamm to participate in a classic debate: Is the sport called football or soccer?

However, the launch of the event was marred by coverage of the brutal working conditions of the migrant workers who built the tournament’s infrastructure, and the announcement that the captains of several European teams would not wear “OneLove” bracelets because doing so could lead to sanctions.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has criticized FIFA’s stance on armbands, stressing that any restrictions on free speech are “worrying”.

Over the weekend, which was supposed to be a celebration, FIFA president Gianni Infantino delivered a tirade in defense of Qatar, emphasizing the “hypocrisy” of Western critics.

“Advertisers know that TV audiences will still be there, but they will be careful to focus on the teams, players and fans at home rather than backing the event itself,” said Mohammed Hamza, media analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

a different backdrop
The timing of the event is also a complicating factor for brands, as ads compete with promotions geared toward holiday shopping.

“A European Championship or World Cup over four weeks in the middle of summer, it’s literally like an island in the middle of the ocean,” ITV sales director Mark Trindler told an industry podcast last spring. It’s different in the fall, he continued, as companies think differently about where and how to spend their money.

Early data shows that advertisers are still willing to take out their wallets. Telemundo, which has the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the competition in the United States, said Monday that it only had a few ad slots left. He had already broken revenue records for the tournament and managed to attract more than 20 new advertisers.

French broadcaster TF1 said earlier this month that it was making progress on ad orders, noting that “seasonality” could turn out to be a boon.

“Demand is stronger in November and December than in July and June,” executive Philippe Denery told investors.

But the bleak economic backdrop also raises questions about the g

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