Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Companies sponsor men’s sports in order to make money. Companies sponsor women’s sports in order to make money, too. The former reality is taken for granted, while the latter is almost universally obscured. Instead, in recent years, women’s sports sponsorship has been presented over and over as a kind of corporate philanthropy.
The aura of benevolence pervades what is otherwise a common business transaction, whether it’s in the glowing press releases announcing how multinational conglomerates have elected to throw women athletes a few dollars, or etched into how those transactions are defined by women’s pro leagues like the WNBA, where sponsors are given the title “Changemakers.” It is not enough to simply attach your brand to a good product. No, these companies expect a gold star for making a pragmatic marketing decision — a kind of two-for-one special on advertising, where you get both the advertising itself, and then good will and a boosted Q-score for… the decision to advertise a product.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, a fact obvious to someone who’s eaten some very tasty meals courtesy of the CLIO Awards (why I was invited, I will never know). But it is, increasingly, the standard operating procedure for companies looking to capitalize on the growing buzz around women’s sports. Donating to some worthy cause is all well and good, but why not reap all the benefits of a standard sponsorship agreement while maintaining a veneer of not just generosity, but a kind of perfectly inoffensive inclusivity and broadly-written progressiveness?
The latest corporation to take this particular approach is Michelob Ultra, which announced last week that it had pledged $100 million over the next five years to “support gender equality in sports,” as its press release put it. Certainly sounds positive; $100 million is hardly chump change, and sports could use some more equality when it comes to gender, as we so frequently discuss in this column. How exactly does Michelob Ultra plan to spend that $100 million? What causes is it planning to support?
Well…itself, basically. The company plans to dedicate “50% of its lifestyle media inventory to content that features and promotes female athletes and women’s sports by 2025.” Without knowing what lifestyle media inventory means (???), it sounds like they’re just going to spend a lot of money paying women athletes to advertise for them (which is fine!). The company also plans to make sure women and men athletes are equally represented in all Michelob advertising spending and campaigns. Naturally, Michelob announced this campaign on “Women’s Equality Day” — because what is feminism, if not the inspiration for random days that can be easily integrated into corporate marketing material.
Even more grating is their opening video campaign, which rests on the slogan “Save It, See It.” “Save women’s sports,” athletes say in the ad — a reference to Instagram’s “save” function, which conveniently looks exactly like the Michelob logo. The concept is that people should “save” women’s sports highlights on Instagram (I mean, I guess?), but the ad makes it sound like women’s sports need to be saved in the broader sense, and Michelob Ultra is the one doing the saving. It’s both odd and insulting to all the people who actually advocate for women in sports.
The Michelob campaign, and the Google campaign, and the Amazon campaign, and whatever other corporate advertisers use appealingly sweaty and sporty women as thinly veiled proof of their egalitarian bona fides, are not about helping women’s sports, or women athletes. They are about helping themselves — if they were to approach their sponsorship deals without shilling some hollow “women’s empowerment” rhetoric, that would be fine.
Michelob Ultra is also now the “official beer of the WNBA,” which — great! That is how advertising in men’s leagues works. There’s no moral imperative behind being the official plumber of the Seattle Seahawks, or whatever. Trying to create one feels insincere and patronizing. Michelob Ultra would not spend $100 million on anything out of the goodness of its CEO’s heart, because capitalism. Right in the press release, they explain that Michelob Ultra is the most popular beer among women (because it’s low calorie, which… is a whole other can of unfortunate worms).
This is a profit play, pure and simple, and trying to mask money grubbing under a cloak of righteousness in order to increase the impact of your money grubbing makes it all a thousand times more unsavory. When marketers actually believe that women’s sports are an asset beyond the appeal of overcoming the very odds those marketers invented, then we will have seen a modicum of progress. It might even be worth a press release.