Iditarod’s bone of contention repels some marketers

by Bruce Horovitz
USA Today
March 2, 2001

The Iditarod dog sled race has become a public-relations minefield.

Organizers of the grueling 1,150-mile race across Alaska have raised a record $2 million this year in sponsorship support for the race, which begins Saturday.

But animal-rights groups are stepping up their condemnation of the 2-week-long race. And corporate image guru John Lister warns that sponsors may need to rethink strategy.

“There is a fairly strong degree of risk in attaching large, national brands to that kind of event,” he says.

Even so, the race has commercial appeal to many — especially in Alaska, where it’s the state’s biggest sporting event.

  • Wells Fargo recently re-signed with a $1 million, 5-year deal for National Bank of Alaska branches.
  • Burger King’s largest franchisee in Alaska is a race sponsor. “If we weren’t involved, the community would wonder, ‘What’s wrong with this company, and why isn’t it supporting the major event of the year?’ ” says Larry Baker, who owns 23 Burger King stores in the state.But Thursday, Burger King asked Iditarod organizers to remove a link to its corporate Web site. “We are not sponsors,” spokeswoman Kim Miller says.
  • USA Network, for the third-consecutive year, will broadcast a 2-hour special on the race. “Our goal is to tell the story of the race, the people and the dogs in it,” says Gordon Beck, executive producer.
  • An e-commerce shop on the Web site sells everything from $100 Iditarod jackets to $295 prints.

Still, sponsors must deal with public-relations fallout. At least 115 dogs have died in the race over the past 29 years. Organizers say that’s a tiny fraction of the 5,000 dogs that have raced and say owners treat the dogs with utmost care. Animal-rights activists say the race also results in terrible injuries to dogs and is inhumane.

Experts say the issue for sponsors is not whether the race is actually cruel to the dogs. The issue for marketers is public perception. And animal-rights activists might be winning that battle.

“Some sponsors must ask themselves: Why sponsor an event that could elicit the wrath of some good-willed consumer group?” says Roberta Clarke, marketing professor at Boston University.

Amy Rhodes of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that many corporations have dropped out as sponsors out of concern that the Iditarod exploits animals.

Among those no longer with the Iditarod: Pizza Hut, Pfizer and Costco.

Most sponsors that drop out tend to be those that do not have a large financial commitment, says Stan Hooley, Iditarod executive director. “Whatever grief they get from the animal-rights groups is more distraction than they want.”