Sports Event Advertising: Is Rugby a different ball game?

How does advertising during the Rugby World Cup compare to other hallmark sport events?
07 September 2023
sports event advertising
Vera Sidlova

Global Director, Creative, Kantar


Insights Division Director, Auckland

With the Rugby World Cup underway in France, we explored how this event’s advertising stacks up. Are advertisers putting the most effective and on-brand creative in front of millions of eyeballs? 

We ran some key ads through our AI-powered ad testing technology (Link AI) and validated psychology framework and tools, including Needscope AI video and music decoder, to see what we could learn about the individual creative assets as well as rugby advertising more broadly. In the spirit of competition, let’s see how the Rugby World Cup stacks up against other sporting events when it comes to creative quality of the advertising on air.

There is something inherently primal and human about sports.  Athletes dedicate their lives to the pursuit of excellence, often putting their bodies and well-being on the line for a chance at glory. Intense competition generates many sporting stories: the underprivileged athlete overcoming the odds to win.  Heroes cast down as villains through cheating.  Stories of heartbreaking loss contrast the exultation of victory. This makes for compelling viewing. 

We all relate to the rollercoaster of emotions of supporting our favourite teams. Sports stories appeal to our nature and imagination. So it is no surprise that big sports events offer big advertising opportunities.   The Olympics and Football World Cups are obvious examples, and who can forget the US Super Bowl, where the competition for the best ad is at least as stiff as the play on the field.  Our data shows that Super Bowl ads are the crème-de-la-crème of sports advertising, not only because they stand out from the crowd, but on average, they also do a better job creating associations for the advertised brand.  

 sports ads

The make-it-or-break-it ingredient: Music

Turning our  attention to the Rugby World Cup, we examined 6 key executions from sponsors and event organisers.  Using AI tools, we see a third of the ads achieved strong emotive clarity.  What was the reason behind that? Music.

Emotive clarity is about the tonality present in advertising.  Emotively clear ads use cohesive tonal cues that make intuitive sense to viewers.  Used consistently, these tonal cues help align advertising more closely with brand positioning.  Recent research also shows how music plays a key role in delivering emotive clarity, aiding the power of storytelling in successful ads. 

The same is true for these Rugby World Cup ads – We Are Rugby, Société Générale and Meta all achieve high emotive clarity largely through their music choices. To explore this more deeply, we use NeedScope, a framework based on universal emotion. NeedScope’s six emotive spaces are represented by colours that provide the basis for brand positioning territories.  

6 emotive spaces (represented by colours):

emotion ads

Using this framework, AI decoding identifies the tonality present in ads, revealing what imagery and audio cues dial the emotion we see and whether these cues work together clearly and cohesively. For the Rugby World Cup ads one thing is evident: they tap into emotion in different ways.  No single emotion defines this event – some are enjoyable, others dramatic and impactful.  Imagery varies in tonal delivery, but we see through their music choices the most emotively clear Ads are: We Are Rugby, Societe Generale and Meta.

Rugby World Cup Ads Ranked by Emotive Clarity:

 Rugby emotions

From Scrum to Screen: Are advertisers getting over the try-line? 

Rugby ads this year do a remarkable job of leveraging the spirit of the tournament and resonating with the audience. However, many of these ads fail to forge an emotional connection to the brand advertised, diminishing cut-through and long-term brand building.
Average percentiles
Power: 59
Impact: 62
Enjoyment: 74
Branding: 40

Source: Kantar Link AI – average for Rugby World Cup 2023 ads
Our data show that advertisers can leverage the rugby event better. Here is how two different spots succeeded: 

- The We Are Rugby spot highlights the human side of the event, through real life stories.   Steering clear of hype, it uses a low-key tone but brings the viewer along with motivating messages.  The classical music score contrasts well with the gritty nature of the sport landing in a warm, inclusive emotive space - landing in the top 15% on Impact and evidencing the highest levels of emotive clarity. 

- Another top performer poised to grab the Cup is ITV’s Rugby World Cup teaser that breaks the creative category code for sports advertising. It doesn’t show athletes playing, vying for the Cup or fans standing in the bleachers with bated breath. Instead, it centers on fan excitement about wanting to know who will win. It features an avid fan seeking the help of a fortuneteller who despite the magic of tarot cards depicting the different teams is unable to predict the winner. ITV’s spot leverages humour – which is finally making a comeback to advertising – in a low key yet punchy way, landing it in the top 10% on Enjoyment.  

ITV1 & ITVX: Rugby World Cup Starts September 8th 

Three things the Rugby World Cup Ads teach us.

Big sports events give brands a rich emotional canvas to tell powerful stories and engage fresh audiences through advertising.  Likewise for these Rugby World Cup Ads. 

1. Enjoyability and humour are key. This can manifest as more overtly fun like in the Meta ads or as low-key humour seen in the ITV spot.      
2. Sporting events call for emotion, and a range of stories with different emotions resonate with different audiences.. As these Ads show, a range of stories with different emotions resonate  with different audiences.
3. Bigger opportunities – learn from the best. Branding is one key area where Rugby World Cup advertisers could improve. By comparison Superbowl advertisers achieve high branding through brand integration activities.

And when it comes to the Rugby World Cup itself, may the best team win!   


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