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The decision by Pernod Ricard to rejoin the Century Council in the US followed the departure of both Brown-Forman and Jim Beam from NASCAR motor racing sponsorship. As Pernod Ricard's decision to leave the organisation was linked to the motor racing issue, Ben Cooper finds out whether there was any connection between these events.

The decision by both Brown-Forman and Jim Beam to exit NASCAR sponsorship, followed only a few weeks later by the announcement that Pernod Ricard would be rejoining the Century Council in the US next year, has set tongues wagging in the 'paddock' of the drinks industry.

Given that Pernod Ricard resigned from the Century Council, an industry-sponsored non-profit organisation which runs alcohol education initiatives, over an issue related to motor racing, it was fairly natural to infer that these events might be connected.

Motor racing appears to be one of the world's most controversy-laden sports, dogged by bickering over regulations and accusations of cheating, even industrial espionage. It also seems that the sport somehow radiates acrimony, because the issue of motor racing sponsorship by drinks firms has long been a bone of contention in the spirits industry.

While market leader Diageo sponsors both Formula 1 and NASCAR, Pernod believes this is an inappropriate form of sponsorship for an alcohol company. Interestingly, Pernod's Mumm Champagne brand is used on the podium for F1 victory celebrations. The French company makes a somewhat artful distinction between a brand directly sponsoring a team in the race and being part of the celebration ceremony.

The difference of opinion between the two companies became very public three years ago when sponsorship guidelines for the European Forum on Responsible Drinking were being drawn up, also around the same time that Pernod Ricard USA left the Century Council.

However, Pernod's US arm has stressed that its decisions to leave and now rejoin the Century Council do not relate directly to other members of the organisation sponsoring motor racing.

Jack Shea, vice president of corporate communications at Pernod Ricard USA, explained that it was the use of the Century Council logo within brand sponsorship which had been the issue. Two changes had allowed Pernod Ricard to change its view.

"The governance issues that caused us concern were addressed by the other Century Council members which led the Century Council board to adopt policies requiring board approval on who uses Century Council logos and how," Shea told just-drinks. "The board have also decided that Century Council materials will not be used in any way in connection with a motor sports sponsorship by a Century Council member company."

Shea said the company was "very pleased" that those issues had been addressed and that it was now able to rejoin. He added that the company had maintained "close contact" with Century Council staff since its resignation in 2006, and has always held open the possibility of coming back. The company had a "longstanding belief in the Council's mission and its effectiveness".

Shea reiterated that there was "no relationship" between Pernod's announcement and Beam Global and Brown-Forman exiting their sponsorships.

Any suggestion that the Century Council was in any way involved in Brown-Forman's or Beam's deliberations over its future involvement in NASCAR was dismissed by Century Council president and CEO Ralph Blackman.

Blackman said the Century Council was "pleased" with Pernod's decision to rejoin. "Pernod's membership signals a united industry effort to address these challenging issues," he said, adding: "The Century Council has not been in contact with any member company concerning their individual decisions to engage in motor sports."

Beam Global and Brown-Forman both stated that they had not exited NASCAR sponsorship for ethical but rather for commercial reasons. Both also confirmed that the decision did not reflect any retrenchment in terms of marketing investment.

The controversy over drinks sponsorship of motor racing in the US was at its height in 2005 when NASCAR changed its rules to allow sponsorship by spirits companies. Brewers have sponsored NASCAR teams for many years.

Brown-Forman corporate communications director Phil Lynch told just-drinks that Brown-Forman had always linked its Jack Daniel's sponsorship to responsible consumption messaging. He also pointed out that from the outset it had resolved only to sell branded NASCAR merchandise to consumers of legal drinking age and above. This was an example followed by beer sponsors. He said the company had "raised the responsibility game" in NASCAR.

Beam Global also stressed that it had always made its sponsorship of NASCAR part of its social responsibility platform. Paula Erickson, vice president, global external communications at Beam Global, said this had helped to "head off" controversy over the links with the sport.

Both companies did not rule out a return to NASCAR in the future. But for now, their departure leaves Diageo somewhat isolated on the issue of motor racing sponsorship. In the past the company has been forthright in defending its stance.

Back in 2006, Johnnie Walker global brand director Ben Anderson said the Johnnie Walker F1 sponsorship provided "a unique and powerful platform to engage consumers on the subject of responsibility".

However, when asked to confirm its current position on motor racing sponsorship, Diageo declined to comment. Whether this is an indication of increased sensitivity on the subject is open to question. While controversy appears to have receded in the US since 2005, it still appears to be a contentious issue in the UK and Europe.

UK alcohol charity Alcohol Concern told just-drinks: "A complete ban on alcohol sponsorship of motor racing would help put a stop to associating the sport's glamour with drinking alcohol. Young people who look up to their motor racing heroes should be protected from alcohol advertising."

Sports sponsorship in general by alcohol companies remains a live issue in the UK. Last month, the British Medical Association (BMA) called for a ban on alcohol sponsorships, and last week the subject was discussed in an evidence session held by the House of Commons Health Committee, as part of its inquiry into alcohol.

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