Viral Marketing

Pro cycling is blatantly commercial with teams named after flooring brands, supermarkets or lotteries. Meanwhile the rationale behind Astana, Bahrain, Israel or UAE Emirates isn’t as obvious. The UAE team seems to be breaking new ground as it is giving publicity to one of the Covid-19 vaccines and there’s a twist as the team’s backers are also behind one particular vaccine too.

Seeing the news that the UAE team were getting vaccinated is generally good, great even but there was a tiny alarm bell ringing somewhere. Was it the sight of riders smiling as a syringe is stuck in their arm? No jokes please, and besides under the UCI’s “no needle” policy medical interventions are permitted. Could it be the promotion of a product that’s probably as yet unapproved where you’re reading this? Maybe, but that could just be a matter of time in a fast-moving story. No, trypanophobia or regulation aside, the first concern was one of priority: why are healthy cyclists getting doses ahead of elderly or vulnerable locals who probably needed it more? That said, a quick look into matters and 8% of the UAE population has already been vaccinated so they can spare a few doses and having high profile figures and celebrities approve can influence the general public in a public health campaign too. No, the small alarm bell here is that this is marketing campaign to promote one particular vaccine and the distributor behind it.

Which brings us to the local business angle. The UAE team is closely linked to the ruling Abu Dhabi royal family which has extensive interests in sporting assets from around the world – like Manchester City football club – and the royal family are closely linked to the development and promotion of one vaccine in the Emirate. The United Arab Emirates has a deal with the Chinese firm Sinopharm for local manufacture and distribution of Sinopharm’s vaccine in the region, via a company called G42 Healthcare from Abu Dhabi. G42 Healthcare is also the same company has been running the clinical trials in the country too. G42 isn’t just any old company, reports link it to Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruling prince and half-brother of the UAE’s President. So G42 isn’t any business, it’s royalty. And in a region where different vaccines are competing for sales – the Russian one is currently undergoing Phase III clinical trials – having a sports team to promote your product can help. In simple terms what better advertising could there be than the Tour de France winner taking the UAE’s vaccine one month and then winning a bike race – ideally the UAE Tour – the next? It’s not going to win adland awards for it’s sophistication but it works. So we have the team being used to market this particular vaccine.

This is overall a very good news story, humanity now has assortment of vaccines, some approved and more in the pipeline, plus the UAE – the country, not the cycling team – have already vaccinated a significant proportion of the population so they can probably spare a box for the cyclists, plus having role models onboard might help sway some people who are hesitant. But it’s also worth pointing out the images of the Tadej Pogačar getting his first dose aren’t a simple public health campaign, there’s a commercial aspect here too with the backers of the team also having links to this one particular vaccine and its licencing in the region: it’s not “here’s a champ getting his vaccine”, it’s “here’s a champ getting our vaccine”. A subtle difference but one worth noting as countries and pharmaceutical companies around the world compete to market their products and this time even a cycling team is involved.

  • 11 January update: G42 have become an official sponsor to the team making connection to the team and the vaccine formal now

Photos courtesy of UAE Emirates team press release

37 thoughts on “Viral Marketing”

  1. God I hope this virus is beaten soon. I am not 100% sure about a system that let’s athletes get vaccinations before the old, the ill, the more needy.

    But living in the UK I guess my chance of being vaccinated are way in front of many who, morally, should be before me. So I am open to a charge of hypocrisy.

    Sponsorship is tied up with the way of the world. The dream scenario is that all teams follow the ‘Euskaltel Model’. Beyond that it gets marked. Sportswashing by nation states? Petrochemical industry? Brexit bastards? They are all in my sport.

    Probably we live between a rock and a hard place.

    I can’t see myself cheering on teams with ropey sponsorship. But I guess my definition of ropey aint yours.

    Complex thing, life.

  2. I find it surprising that the team should vaccinate and, even more so, that riders should accept a vaccine apparently not yet approved by the CHMP (European Agency) or major equivalent body. Is that really the case?

  3. There is indeed a worrying aspect to all this. Medical ethics and money aside.
    Some senior figures in the UKs Premier football League are now demanding their teams are vaccinated, Why they think fit young sports stars ,who are already exempt and in many cases have flaunted the current lock down, should take priority over vulnerable older and at ‘risk elements’ of society is both cruel and arrogant beyond belief.
    Something is truly wrong with the way our society functions.

    • I understand your point BC but I personally don’t have a problem with elite sports persons getting the vaccine quickly. Presumably they can do so through private healthcare. We’ve asked them to continue to perform, and do so in difficult circumstances, and there’s no shortage as such of vaccine supplies.
      I also don’t have a problem with the UAE royal family investing in the healthcare of their population either. Whether the cycling team actually had the vaccinations or it was a publicity stunt is neither here or there.
      The main thing is that the virus is defeated and the more vaccines and vaccinations there are, and the quicker they’re done, the better.
      It’s people in poorer nations that is a huge concern, and I hope that the various agencies are able to garner the support to help as fully as possible.
      This is an interesting article by Inner Ring but good on UAE I say.

      • “I personally don’t have a problem with elite sports persons getting the vaccine quickly. Presumably they can do so through private healthcare.”
        But our reservations aren’t about funding, they’re about availability. There us going to be a world shortage of vaccines for many months and every jab going to a fit young athlete can’t go to a vulnerable person.
        UAE aren’t the only team to be talking about this, and I can see why it appeals from a business perspective, but at the moment it feels immoral?

        • As an over-arching strategy of course it’s the correct thing to prioritise vulnerable persons and key workers but the whole vaccination programme has to move at pace and cover as many people as quickly as possible.
          You can’t exclude people because certain segments of the target population haven’t yet been reached. It’s not a case of either / or.
          From my understanding, COVID cases are on the rise in the UAE so it’s as well that they’ve developed their own vaccine.
          I see the Team UAE vaccination as a publicity exercise, more than anything.
          It could have some public health benefit too.
          As ever, though, you would fear more for the less-affluent parts of their society and maybe migrant workers who may be at the back of any vaccination queues.

      • “We’ve asked them to continue to perform,”

        Who is this ‘we’? I don’t see the need for professional athletes to be allowed to do a nonessential job when so many others are told to stay home.

  4. I find your comment reeks a bit of “West Exceptionalism”. As you are kind of saying only western agencies such as CHMP are good enough to do the certification.

    UAE would have an equivalent agency that does the certification, China certainly does have one.

    There maybe an argument of trial data transparency regarding the vaccine. But then again, it’s phase 1-2 data are published on the Lancet as of November.

    It is worth noting that full Pfizer phase 3 data was published after emergency use certification was granted in UK.

    • I think this is in reply to DJW? As touched on above in a sentence there are issues for riders living and working in a place where the vaccine isn’t yet approved, eg do they still have to get one in their country at some point but that’s not got much to do with a sports blog here. We’re likely to see more products approved in more countries over time but there is a political angle here with different countries wanting to sell product for hard currency or soft diplomacy and to a small degree it looks like the cycling team is being roped into this as the UAE looks to sell the product its associated with.

    • This is a good point, although there are definitely reasons to be wary of regulatory oversight of any branch of society in autocratic states. We have enough conflicts of interest that create bad decisions in democracies (see Boeing for example), but these are much more potent where someone wields absolute power.
      The other thought is in a more micro level; it can hardly be considered informed consent if you (already in an insecure job, on a short-term contract) are told by your employer that they are going to give you their vaccine as a marketing stunt.

  5. It is advertising.
    Let’s face it, noble Corinthian ideals of the purity of pro-level sponsored sport are long gone, it’s a multimillion dollar business and entertainment for the masses.
    Is saying that our athletes use this vaccine so much different to that they use this sports drink, brand of cola, brand of razor blades, etc ?
    That they are associated with a brand of petrochemicals, lottery tickets, mobile phone provider ?

  6. What seems to have been missed… As an athlete, are they not responsible for what they put in their body? Not their team?

    No way would I have had an un-approved (whether its pending or not, or a foregone conclusion) vaccine applied.

    What happens if it doesn’t get approved around the world.. maybe your still not allowed to fly etc

    Too risky at this early stage I would have thought.

  7. Extraordinary that some are so duped by capitalist propaganda that they think it’s acceptable for people to be vaccinated on the basis of how much money they have and/or how much money they are worth to their employers.
    Health should be the only consideration.
    Every single vaccination that these people get is taken from someone more vulnerable.

    • It’s demonstrably not though. Have you seen how many doses have been wasted because they couldn’t get them in peoples arms before they expired? Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

        • I agree with Data003. The U.K. population of over 80s is 3.2 million, based on a squad size of 24, the Premiership has 480 athletes to inoculate – that’s 0.015 % being diverted. I know I’ve only used football players, but I just want to make the point of how minimal this.
          I know the argument would be where you draw the line, but to be fair I think sport has played a significant part in helping normalise people’s lives in an abnormal time. You wouldn’t be reading Inrng’s website if you didn’t crave distraction/sport, so don’t go po-faced on me.
          I’m not suggesting they go to the front of the queue, but when you consider the wastage because people are not attending their appointments, then it makes sense for people who can sit around to wait for missed appointments and get jabs instead. The sooner we all get inoculated the better.
          I don’t like privilege being asserted, but I sort of feel that sport does provide a public good of sorts – if it keeps people indoors watching telly and prevents social mixing it is also beneficial.
          Footballers are also required to get close and physical with opposition players which is unavoidable (as with many sports) which potentially put them at high risk of infection so it also makes sense that they get it over someone who is “happily” working from home.
          Anyway, it doesn’t scandalise me. Nor does the process of UAE’s vaccination. Sports people have often been shill’s for people wanting to pedal their products. It’s the only way cycling exists. My concern is the riders health, but they live in a world where their well-being is a constant second to the demands of their job so it may not feel dangerous. But it would be a massive disaster if they gave their riders a vaccine that didn’t work or had serious side-effects, so I imagine that there must have been great confidence in it.

          • But if football clubs can buy it why can’t everyone else? If that were allowed to happen then it would just be a commercial free for all, with the wealthy benefiting. We’d see market traders in the city vaccinated before front-line healthcare workers.

          • RQS, how many extra deaths would the 0.015% you mention account for? And what number would be acceptable to you?
            Plus, as Tovarishch points out, where would the line be drawn?
            It is immoral to give these vaccinations based on anything other than health.

          • It’s interesting how you are all happy to misconstrue my comments. The point data003 and I are making is that it is an imperfect world. You may need the vaccine more than the WWII centenarian, but you just don’t know it. And, then are they more deserving of an early vaccination than you? Who can be sure how COVID will affect them?
            What is a shame is that vaccines are being wasted, and I think it would be best to have people on standby in the cases of missed appointments. But I’m also posing the factor (not just about footballers but other sports) that the individuals are required to participate in sport which do not allow for social distancing, but yet proves a beneficial distraction which means that those of us much further down the line are entertained without consequence while we wait for Grandma to be vaccinated. This likely has the benefit that people stay indoors and don’t spread the virus, which ultimately is a more sure fire way of stopping grandma from getting sick. The point of comparing the 0.015% is to demonstrate that in the case of footballers this is an insignificant affect to the overall. And, besides, if grandma is still alive she should be safely isolating like she’s supposed to have been for the last 11 months – she’ll not notice that her appointment was 5 minutes later than it should have been…
            If you equate one injection of a sportsman to one death you don’t really understand reality either – you’re argument is based on a fallacy. We don’t live on a knife edge of one vaccination prevents one death as until the vaccine was developed that would predicate we all died, which is simply not true. So please come with a more sophisticated argument.

          • RQS, no-one ‘equated one injection of a sportsman to one death’. You made that up.

            The fact is that even if it’s a tiny number of vaccinations given to people ‘ahead of the queue’, some people in that queue will suffer. Even if that only means being locked up for a bit longer, which you’re also apparently unconcerned about.

            It’s about need. And statistics. And, statistically, footballers don’t need the vaccine as much as the elderly or people with health issues. They can play football (or race bikes) without the vaccine, as they have for months.

            People are always happy to apply this kind of ‘logic’ to others. I strongly suspect they’d be less happy to do so were they themselves likely to be affected.

            Your need to watch whatever sport is nowhere near as important as someone else’s health. Except to you, it seems.

            As a society we can have solidarity with our fellow humans, or we can act selfishly and demand that our lives are as unaffected as possible, regardless of how the lives of others are affected.

          • I don’t think what I’m proposing is selfish at all. I don’t even watch football!
            I’m not being categorical about it either. I just think there is merit to it because the argument about waiting times etc. is nonsense because we are talking fractions.
            You’re assertion that we are all better served by Grandma getting the vaccine is not without some elementary assumptions. Arguably the people most like to catch and spread the disease are at a younger group, and you may even be able to pinpoint demographics which highlight a most effective way of stopping the spread, but I expect that politically this would not be expedient – cries of victim blaming and that the process is unfair (people outside the demographics would still die in the process) so we have one that is “fair” because it assumes vulnerability based on age, and so potentially blocks people dying. Yet, the process isn’t fair, and is unequal. My mother-in-law is both over 70 and highly vulnerable, neither attribute increases her likelihood of getting the vaccine quicker. She is still waiting for an appointment, yet hears daily from her friends in a similar age group that they have received a jab. That’s not fair or reasonable since she is more vulnerable – but life isn’t perfect. But she and her family all have to live with this. Don’t preach to me about how concerned I am with someone else’s health as I am extremely concerned – but the system is so flawed no matter what you do that I don’t think including some small groups will makes a huge difference to the current process. As I said, if you had a footballer/cyclist/neuro-surgeon or whomever on standby for cancelled appointments you would just be pulling up the slack in the system, not killing anyone.
            Many of the people they have aimed to inoculate will likely be more house bound and less likely to go out and transmit the disease. It will save them, but anyone can die from it, many of whom have working lives who need to travel and work? Can you tell me how they are best served? That’s rhetorical, because you can’t – so something as arbitrary as enabling people to play professional sport while we all wait for the needle is insignificant – the problem comes when you get people making equivalencies to other jobs or vulnerabilities. And, to that extent the position becomes harder because a judgement needs to be made.
            One positive aspect would be if you made any exceptions pay. Then at least there would be a balancing for the public good.
            Anyway, if you think that there won’t be people who jump the queue in any respect I think you’d be mistaken.

          • Although professional sports have managed to restart and continue in the absence of the vaccine, which would suggest there’s no great need to vaccinate athletes ahead of other groups.

          • I’m a grandma, and I wish you would all stop voicing opinions about my health priorities as if I had no agency or opinion of my own. That’s seems dangerously near using a whole set of persons as an amorphous, unvocal blob whose ‘well being’ can then be weaponised to advocate for someone else’s personal (and political) opinions. That’s a very perilous path.

            For what it’s worth, I would prefer a young fit person to receive any vaccine before me. They have ( well, most of them) a useful role to play in society, and they have their lives ahead of them. I have had and enjoyed the majority of my life. That’s just my personal opinion, about me, I’m not saying that anyone else of my age sex or social class shares it, maybe yes, maybe no. But please don’t lump people into categories for the sake of an argument

            By the way, I suspect that the UAE vaccine may play a useful role in this pandemic, since many orthodox Muslims are refusing current Western developed vaccines on the grounds that they may not be halal.

  8. These guys will be traveling all over Europe/the world in the coming months. There’s an arguement that the most likely spreaders should be the priority for the vaccination.

    You also shouldn’t underestimate how much of this vaccine is going to end up in the bin. The millions of doses that will be wasted are a far greater concern than a few cyclists”jumping the queue”.

  9. If they have a off 2021 they can claim it was the Sinopharm!
    I would imagine that when one of the “tested and approved EU vaccines” is not in short supply they will take that as a booster.

  10. Guinea pigs,
    -aren’t forced to use this sports drink or that sports drink, brand of cola, brand of razor blades, etc.
    While they are associated with a brand of petrochemicals, lottery tickets, mobile phone provider and all that,
    -We see riders sponsored by one bike or wheel manufacturer etc yet use another brand with black paint over it.
    This is different, they are not given a choice. -Is that correct? They are injected with what amounts to an experiment.
    I know there are / will be various businesses / employers who will demand vaccination and maybe this is one of them.
    Just weird and creepy and being associated with UAE as a profit gig doesn’t help.

  11. Weren’t the cyclists vaccinated as volunteers in the trials of the vaccine?
    I read (on another cycling website) that this was the case.
    Does anyone have reliable information on this please?
    If it is true, then they haven’t taken vaccines away from the more needy and more vulnerable.

  12. Worth acknowledging that pro cyclists pass by many thousands of roadside spectators every day of racing. That’s a lot of people shouting, with the inevitable spray of droplets coming your way. Lovely.
    Team sports test all players, so does the pro peloton but they go out and get exposure to the fans in a way that no other sport does. Riders are the elite athletes with the heaviest likely viral load. It’s okay to give them the jab, just as soon as you finish doing all front line essential workers.

  13. As I understand it the various vaccines protect the the vaccinated from severe illness in around 95% of cases. What the vaccine does not do is prevent one contracting the virus or transmitting it to a third person (though it may well reduce the viral load and thus the probability of transmission). In that case the UAE team are protecting themselves from serious illness but not necessarily protecting the peloton in general.

    • and the BBC reports that Brazilian evaluation of the Sinovac (is it the same product?) vaccine has an effectiveness of 50,4% which just scrapes over the required threshold of 50%

    • It’s fairer to say that we *don’t know* whether the vaccines prevent transmission, as that wasn’t being tested during the trials.

      Biologically, however, there is no reason why the vaccines shouldn’t assist with this. After all, they work by stimulating your body to produce antibodies that will attack the virus when it enters your system. This way they prevent the virus from replicating enough for you to develop the disease. It’s therefore logical to assume that they would also have an impact on whether the virus can replicate enough for you to become infectious. The question is how much of an effect this has, and is it enough to have an impact on the transmissibility of the disease.

      As increasingly large groups of people get vaccinated over the coming weeks and months, we should see whether the vaccines do help to prevent transmission too.

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