Indonesia Expat

Football and Cigarettes

Football and Cigarettes
Football and Cigarettes
Rio Ferdinand in Indonesian cigarette company advertisement

I wish I knew the joy of smoking cigarettes. I tried to have a puff for two seconds in the name of curiosity and I wanted my two seconds back afterwards. What the hell was that? Is inhaling oxygen too easy and too mainstream for some that makes them think they should up their game by inhaling something else? I seriousy wanted to like smoking – it’s always the easiest icebreaker in any awkward situation, but I just can’t. I don’t like the smell. I don’t like the taste. I don’t like the aftertaste. And unlike Radiohead, I don’t think I have an Iron Lung.

One of the most common questions ever thrown at strangers (and easily the most used icebreaking line in Jakarta, if not Indonesia) is, “May I borrow your lighter?” This question is surely based on the false assumption that smoking is a normal habit for everybody. Because if you’re not a smoker or a ballad concert spectator or a pyromaniac, why would you want to carry a lighter in your pocket?

Another example of living in a smoking society is when you give small money as tip for a favour somebody did for you; it’s common to call it uang rokok (cigarette money). We could have called it something else – meal money, for instance – but we are content to call it uang rokok because apparently cigarettes are a highly coveted commodity in this place we live in.

Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) released their research a while ago that 86% of Indonesian adults believe that smoking may cause serious damage to health – let’s just assume that the other 14% didn’t hear the question clearly. But it didn’t prevent a lion’s share of the male population in this country to keep smoking. Around 67% Indonesian male adults still burn their daily intake of tobacco, followed by a minority of 4.5% of the female population. In total, 36.1% of Indonesian citizens are active smokers (and God knows how many passive smokers are out there) and these numbers show the highest prevalence of all 16 countries researched by GATS.

I might not be a smoker, but as a sports enthusiast and somebody who has a a tenure in writing about that particular subject, I reluctantly have to admit that cigarettes had benefited me in the past. Until a few years ago, the concept of paying a TV subscription to watch a live football match is alien to most Indonesians. You could get all the top leagues from across Europe in your living room without spending a penny. All had been paid by the tobacco companies through TV sponsorship.

English Premier League? Tick

Italian Serie A? Tick

Spanish La Liga? Tick

Champions League? Tick

World Cup? Why not? Tick

Are you a motorhead, how about F1? Tick

MotoGP? That as well. Tick.

The Indonesian audience was definitely spoiled by the privilege they didn’t even know they had. It was served to them on a silver platter. That’s why they went berserk when the concept of paid TV subscription was introduced a few years ago, when Astro took over the broadcasting rights of the English Premier League. For the first time, Indonesian audiences faced the inconvenient truth that there’s no free lunch this time and they were enraged as if it’s their divine right to watch live football matches without paying.

The involvement of the tobacco industry in the Indonesian sporting world didn’t stop there. Not only did cigarette companies want to sponsor TV broadcasting rights in exchange for media exposure, they would even go the extra mile by sponsoring local professional sports leagues. At least the top-tier Indonesian football league was named after a cigarette brand for a few seasons. The same thing also happened to the old professional basketball league and the professional volleyball league.

The best case is visible in the sport where Indonesia excels the most: badminton. For a long period of time, Indonesia Open (a Super Series tournament – a prestigious tournament not too dissimilar with Grand Slam in tennis) had a tobacco brand prefix in its formal name. The same company, which is based in Kudus, Central Java, also has the best badminton training camp in the country with state-of-the-art facilities that has produced some of the finest players that ever graced the red and white flag on their chests.

Because there are restrictions on tobacco TV ads where the image of actual smoking is prohibited, these companies advertised their products in a rather hilarious, if not nonsensical way; daredevils paragliding in the mountains, agile traceurs doing parkour, even something as unrelated as cheating your way to pay less in a Padang restaurant. Tobacco TV ads are the kings of nonsense.

Manchester United defender, Rio Ferdinand found himself starring in one of these tobacco TV ads after he visited this country a couple of years ago. In that ad, Ferdinand exhibited his physical prowess and determination on the pitch by beating the obstacles while narrating, “I’ve been tackled, I’ve been pushed, but I always get up again.” The ads could have been better if only Ferdinand uttered the words with a hint of irony because intensive smoking will someday make you “will not be able to get up again.”

The cigarette brands are no longer allowed to sponsor sports broadcast due to the new regulation from the government. Walking down memory lane, should I be thanking the tobacco companies for those free live football broadcasts all these years that provided entertainment for people across the archipelago? Honestly, I have a mixed feeling. But I couldn’t help to think there’s something more to it.

Sometimes I think that, in addition to marketing purposes, sponsoring football broadcasts was a part of the company’s corporate social responsibility program; thanks for your money and we’re sorry for your damaged lungs, here we give you free football broadcast.

Happy? Here, smoke some more.

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