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A-B InBev To NFL: 'We Are Not Yet Satisfied'

Advertising Age, September 16, 2014

By E.J. Schultz

Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of the NFL's largest advertisers and sponsors, has broken its silence on the league's recent troubles in a stern statement that appears to put the NFL on notice.

"We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season," the brewer stated. "We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league."

Still, the brewer did not indicate that it is pulling its sponsorship or advertising. Asked to elaborate on what it wants the NFL to do, a spokesman said: "Unfortunately we are not prepared to share any additional details of our conversations with the league or our sponsorship activity at this time."

Asked to respond, an NFL spokesman said: "We understand. We are taking action and there will be much more to come."

The NFL yesterday said in a letter to teams and staff that it had retained the services of three female senior advisers to "help lead and shape the NFL's policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault." One of the women assisting the league is Lisa Friel, former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney's Office.

A-B InBev since last week had repeatedly declined to comment about how the NFL had handled the Ray Rice domestic-violence matter. But today's statement comes hours after the Radisson hotel chain last night said it was suspending its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings in the wake of child-abuse charges against star running back Adrian Peterson.

Together, the two actions suggest that the solidarity that sponsors have exhibited in generally supporting the league is beginning to show some cracks. Either that, or sponsors are realizing they must speak with more conviction on the matter.

Jim Andrews, a senior VP-content strategy at sponsorship consultancy IEG, said A-B InBev's statement "does an exceptional job walking the tightrope that sponsors find themselves in. Without disrupting any current investment in promotions and other NFL assets, and without abandoning its longtime partner, it aligns with and addresses the concerns of the many consumers who are disillusioned with the spate of recent events."

He added that "while it will not satisfy those who want sponsors 'to walk the walk' by taking decisive action, its use of terms such as 'disappointed,' 'increasingly concerned' and 'not yet satisfied' go further than statements of this type typically do."

Indeed, other sponsor statements have been more tepid.

USAA, the league's "official military appreciation sponsor," for instance, stated that "this is a situation that we'll continue to watch closely," while PepsiCo said last week that "we are encouraged to see the NFL is now treating this with the seriousness it deserves."

Procter & Gamble's CoverGirl brand continues to be criticized in social media for its NFL deal, which includes team-inspired makeup. Last night, the brand posted a statement on its Facebook page noting that "we have encouraged the NFL to take swift action on their path forward to address the issue of domestic violence." But some fans remained unsatisfied, including one commenter who replied: "Maybe encourage them by dropping your sponsorship. Otherwise you're just enabling them."