Northug and Red Bull sponsorship: an issue of morality in Norway

November 25, 2009

In a country where energy drinks have become almost as American as pie, it might seem odd to us that in Norway the energy drink Red Bull had been banned until just half a year ago. The ban was also just recently lifted in France, while several other countries still ban the drink, including Denmark and Uruguay.   With this in mind,  you may imagine the uproar generated when the media recently reported that one of their most recognized athletes, Petter Northug, was signing a sponsorship agreement with Red Bull.

Petter Northug (photo: Ida Karlsson)
Petter Northug (photo: Ida Karlsson)

Already on shaky ground with some team sponsors and personnel over rumors of his plans to leave the national team this season (which Northug and his publicists have denied), Northug again ran into trouble  with the Norwegian National Ski Federation (NNSF) for wearing a Red Bull logo on his hat for a television interview without permission, and was fined the equivalent of a month’s salary.

The Norwegian alpine racer Aksel Lund Svindal was the first skier to be approached for sponsorship by Red Bull, but at the time he had to turn down the sponsorship because the country had still banned the drink. He is now sponsored by the beverage, but Elling Breivik, head of Norway’s Alpine Skiing Federation, cites the main difference from Northug is that Svindal’s contract with Red Bull does not call for his obligation to wear the company’s logo on any clothing.  Because there is limited space on suits and hats for sponsorship, the NNSF is very concerned with approving sponsors for individual athletes that may conflict with major team sponsors.

Norway’s Sports President, Tove Paule, was unhappy with Northug’s decision and thought that the approval of his sponsorship by the NNSF was perhaps a bit rushed, citing that because Northug is a role model for so many young kids, there may be a moral or ethical obligation at stake.  Several of the biathlon federation sponsors also stated that they were unhappy with the deal because of ethical reasons.  Though Northug stood by his decision to be sponsored by Red Bull when the news first broke, he and his media team, Team Northug, did reconsider the contract for awhile because of the negative feedback.

Meanwhile, the hype brought on by the national outcry has actually been a type of advertising for the energy drink. An estimate from Harald Massager, creative director at ad agency TIBE, found that with all the mentions of Red Bull in the media, the company has garnered 20-30 million dollars worth of unpaid advertising.

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