Captains Outrageous: Diageo offered bounties to NFL athletes who would imitate its rum?s famous mascot.
Captains Outrageous: Diageo offered bounties to NFL athletes who would imitate its rum?s famous mascot. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Should America be surprised if on Sunday night Drew Brees, breaking Super Bowl MVP tradition, looks into a camera, yells “I’m going to Diageo!” and jumps into his best Captain Morgan pose?

“That’s not going to happen,” says Dan Sanborn, spokesman for Diageo.

Don’t believe it till you don’t see it.

Football’s hot on TV. While some NFL teams had more trouble than ever getting pants in the seats, TV ratings have been boffo all season, and playoff viewership is at its highest in decades.

Diageo, the world’s largest booze company, wants a piece of that action.

“Our business and brands are about celebration, celebrating life,” Sanborn says, when asked why his company has set its sights on the NFL. “When you’re at home and your team scores a touchdown, we want to be part of that moment.”

But ownership of “that moment” has for years belonged to other fermenting superpowers. For years, the NFL has been in bed with beer producers such as Coors and Anhauser Busch. Most of Diageo’s top-tier products—among them, Captain Morgan rum, Smirnoff vodka, and Seagram’s and Crown Royal whiskeys—are hard liquors, and though restrictions on televised liquor advertising have loosened considerably in the last decade, all the major networks still refuse to run commercials for such potent potables.

So Diageo has had to hit roads less traveled with its marketing campaigns.

“We work with teams, not as a partner with the league,” says Sanborn.

In 2002, the Redskins signed what Sanborn describes as “a pioneering, first-of-its-kind deal with a football team and a spirits company.” That agreement called for signs promoting Diageo brands to be installed at FedExField and for advertisements for its liquors to run on local television during Redskins-controlled programming. Critics charged the signs were obviously aimed at a television audience that otherwise wouldn’t see liquor ads.

George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project, a program of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wrote to Redskins owner Dan Snyder in 2002 requesting that he kill the Diageo deal.

“The Redskins’ unprecedented sponsorship deal opens the door to a deluge of hard-liquor promotion in professional sports and furthers the liquor industry’s aggressive efforts to reach millions of underage viewers in the powerful broadcast media,” Hacker wrote. “Airing ads for Smirnoff Ice and Captain Morgan’s Gold [malt-based beverages with hard-liquor names and logos] during Redskin telecasts trumpets liquor brands and enables Diageo to sidestep the networks’ voluntary ban on hard liquor ads. Redskin games are watched by a large number of underage fans.”

Hacker has remained a Diageo watchdog over the years and says the company has never stopped its loophole-seeking strategy to reach a new, younger audience.

“That’s the same reason they started producing soft drinks under the Seagram’s name,” Hacker tells me, “using signs and packaging with the same logo and font, and placed in a part of the store where liquor products are not permitted. This is what they do.”

Adds David H. Jernigan, who runs the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University, a group funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Diageo really is the pioneer in this type of marketing” alcohol to an underage audience.

Malarkey, says Diageo’s Sanborn. “Eighty percent of the NFL fans are legal drinking age plus,” he says, “and more than 50 percent are between 25 and 54 years old.”

Snyder has stayed on board with Diageo despite Hacker’s plea, and he remains as strong a partner as the company has in the NFL. Diageo’s current deal with the Redskins goes beyond signs and local broadcast commercials. The company also funded the creation of a new position at Redskins Park: Former player Ken Harvey was installed last season as the team’s first director of responsibility. In that job, Harvey, who possesses the personality, physique, and reputation of a superhero, goes into the community on various do-gooder missions, promoting Diageo-funded programs with names like “Safe Rides” and “Fourth and Life,” and talking up the Fan Code of Conduct, which explains proper etiquette for game-day imbibers. He played for the congressional side against a team of U.S. Capitol Police in a charity flag-football game at the D.C. Armory this fall, an event sponsored by Diageo.

Harvey is as good a spokesperson as any marketer could want. During interviews, which are solicited and scheduled by a New York PR firm contracted by Diageo, Harvey mentions the sponsor’s name only slightly less than he smiles. And he’s always smiling.

Sanborn insists that in subsidizing Harvey and others who have since been hired in similar positions by other NFL teams, the company is merely trying to keep drunks from driving and kids from drinking.

Others aren’t so sure.

“All the ‘do-gooderness’ is just another marketing opportunity for Diageo,” says James F. Mosher, a lawyer who runs Alcohol Policy Consultations, a watchdog group and longtime Diageo critic. “They’ve always done this kind of guerilla marketing, and their campaigns are particularly attractive to kids, and they’re successful.” (In some cities, Diageo’s campaign is called the “Captain Morgan Safe Rides” program.)

And on past Super Bowl Sundays, Diageo has quietly bought up massive amounts of time on local television stations throughout the U.S., which don’t have prohibitions on liquor ads, thereby skirting the network ban as surely as the signs-in-stadiums strategy.

The most brilliant and fun ploy (or evil and sneaky ploy, depending on your booze-view) Diageo has yet pulled off in its NFL-or-bust crusade came last November, during a Sunday night Philadelphia–Dallas game televised nationally by NBC. Eagles tight end Brent Celek scored and immediately adopted an odd stance, sort of like the Heisman with a pulled groin.

Only those in the know knew what the heck Celek was doing—he was striking the Captain Morgan pose, as seen in ads for the liquor. It later came out that Diageo had offered a $10,000 bounty to any NFL player who struck their trademarked pose after a touchdown. After word about the posing bounty got out, Diageo said the money was always going to be donated to a charity. Again, Diageo just wants to be part of those moments.

The NFL, however, wants to control those moments. Before Diageo even made its posing-for-dollars plan official, the league crushed it by announcing future Captain Morgan mimicry would bring severe fines or worse. Too bad: The company said it planned to up the payouts to $25,000 for the playoffs and to $100,000 for a Super Bowl pose.

“This was fun for us. But the NFL has longstanding relationships with beer,” Sanborn says of the Celek situation, “and they were looking out for their partners’ interest.”

Because of Diageo’s and Snyder’s past—the guy sold “commemorative Sept. 11 hats” for $23.99 plus shipping—the motivation behind everything the company does can be suspect.

Even a trip to Haiti.

There has been a lot of self-promotion done in the name of Haitian relief since the earthquake. Some of the campaigns have been classy: George Clooney’s ubiquitous telethon, for example, where the world’s biggest superstars performed and made appearances without any identification.

Some have been crassy. For one: The management of Creed, the punch-line chord-rockers now attempting a resurrection, announced that the band and various side projects of its members would fund a mission to send supplies to the stricken country.

The media campaign mounted by the Redskins and Diageo about their joint Haitian relief campaign falls closer to Creed than Clooney. The press release from Redskins Park announcing a Haiti trip begins, “The Washington Redskins have announced that they are partnering with Diageo, the world’s leading spirits, beer and wine company, and one of the team’s long-standing business partners,” and goes downhill from there. The Redskins, Snyder, and Diageo are mentioned 15 times in the release’s first seven paragraphs. There’s also a reference to a “Diageo Disaster Team” in the memo, though the company now admits no such standing outfit exists.

“Anything done to help in Haiti is laudable, and in no way would I criticize anything they’ve done there. It’s great that Diageo and the Redskins did this,” says Hacker. “But if this isn’t for promotion, does there have to be so much backslapping in a press release? It becomes just another advertisement for the team and its sponsor.”

Sanborn says that during Super Bowl weekend Diageo’s various brands will be sponsoring parties thrown by Boomer Esiason (Johnnie Walker), 944 Magazine (José Cuervo), and Jamie Foxx (Captain Morgan). Ken Harvey will be in Miami this week, too, telling partygoers that if they’ve had too much of those spirits, they can get a free taxi ride, courtesy of Diageo.

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