The European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD) has had to postpone its plans to publish self-regulatory guidelines on drinks sponsorship because of a failure to find consensus on the subject. Ben Cooper reports on how growing political and public concern over sponsorship has given the drinks industry much to think about.

News that the European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD) has had to postpone plans to introduce specific guidelines on drinks sponsorship will not come as a huge surprise to those following the sponsorship debate, and only serves to underline the sensitivity of this issue.

The postponement stems from a failure of the member companies' CEOs to reach agreement on the proposals at a meeting held on 30 October in Stockholm. Although in the past attempts to introduce self-regulation in such areas have foundered because certain companies baulk at too rigid controls, the disagreement here stems ironically from an objection that the proposals do not go far enough.

Pernod Ricard chairman and CEO Patrick Ricard declined to back the proposals because he believes they should be stronger. Ricard has been vocal in his disapproval of drinks sponsorship of motor racing and it was suggested that he had objected to the proposed guidelines because they did not proscribe motorsport sponsorship.

However, such specific proscriptions were never the aim of these proposals, arguably because the divergent views on motor racing alone would have made agreement impossible. Indeed, the guidelines are believed to have deliberately focused on style and approach to sponsorship, laying down ground rules for how sponsorships should be conducted.

Pernod Ricard's vice president for institutional affairs Jean Rodesch, who sits on the EFRD committee, was at pains to point out that Ricard had not objected on the grounds that the guidelines had not proscribed motor racing. Rodesch said that the objections revolve around the wording of the commitments, benchmarking and who would be monitoring compliance.

This does fit with Pernod Ricard's stance on motor racing in the US. While the company resigned from the industry-sponsored alcohol awareness group The Century Council in September over the issue of NASCAR sponsorship, it said that it did not object to its competitors sponsoring motor racing, even though it felt it was an inappropriate area for drinks to enter. However, it took exception to companies involving The Century Council in this area.

If indeed Ricard is not insisting on any explicit reference to motorsport, which would effectively leave the proposals dead in the water, there is still a chance that agreement can be reached. Rodesch certainly believes consensus can be found, though not perhaps until January.

Those who have been working on introducing various self-regulatory controls at the EFRD believe it is a matter of urgency that the body agree on a set of guidelines and publish them as soon as possible. This serves to underline the industry's justified anxiety over the growing public and political concern over sponsorship.

Sponsorship is a very powerful marketing medium which is now being used more extensively and in a much more sophisticated manner by drinks companies. Whereas sponsorship was once a question of some signage, pouring rights and a bit of corporate entertaining - often coinciding with the CEO's favourite sport - today global sponsorship platforms can be central to the entire marketing campaign of an international brand.

At a local and international level, sponsorships are tied in with all aspects of marketing activity. 'Active engagement' is the mantra for many brands, as sponsorship is seen as much more than merely an opportunity to raise awareness but as a direct means of driving sales.

Developments in media and information technology have hugely expanded the options available to sponsoring companies, and the increasing value of sponsorship to brands has made sponsorship an even more lucrative earning stream for sponsorship properties, such as sports teams, leagues and arts and cultural events.

However, the more sophisticated approach and the growing potency of sponsorship as a medium have only served to intensify the concerns over certain issues. The most important of these - as they are with the debate over most aspects of commercial communication - are related to responsible consumption and the protection of minors.

In both areas, sponsorship has caused increasing concern. Many public health advocates argue that sport is in itself an inappropriate medium because the very association of alcoholic drinks and sports - particularly successful sports stars - makes a link between alcohol and athletic prowess which virtually all self-regulatory and legislative marketing controls outlaw.

Drinks companies argue that this would be an unnecessarily strict interpretation of such guidelines. However, the sponsorship of motor racing specifically by certain drinks brands has become a far more contentious issue. While drinks brands, such as Johnnie Walker, have used their associations with motorsport to put over a responsible consumption message, this has not been enough to placate many critics. Sports sponsorship in general sparks concerns over the promotion of alcohol in areas where children will be present.

The EFRD is not the only social aspects organisation which is keen to introduce more specific self-regulation regarding sponsorship. In the UK, the Portman Group has also included issues related to sponsorship in its current consultation document which will shape revisions to its marketing code next year.

The Portman Group's chief executive David Poley is in no doubt that more specific self-regulation would be advisable. "There has perhaps been increasing focus on alcohol sponsorship in recent months and years and there seems to be increasing criticism from some quarters about what the drinks industry is doing," Poley says. "It would be good for the industry to be on the front foot, to make sure everything it is doing is responsible, in order that it can adequately defend itself against any criticism. It's up to the industry, but if we can have more detailed rules it will lead to greater consistency and allow it to defend itself against criticism."

Drinks sponsorship is the subject of just-drinks' November Management Briefing which contains an in-depth discussion of sponsorship as a marketing medium for alcoholic drinks and the corporate social responsibility issues surrounding it, along with detailed case studies. For more information go to: /briefings