David Beckham: footballer, philanthropist, entrepreneur, and now, eco-warrior. In a move that would make David Attenborough proud, Inter Miami CF (the Major League soccer club co-owned by Beckham) and its partner Heineken have collaborated with Cycle, a recycling technology and data company, to launch their ‘reverse’ vending machines.

When this was reported in the sports press recently it caught our eye not only because we thought it was a very good thing, but because it does raise some interesting marketing law considerations.

The initiative, which has been promoted over PA announcements and on big screens in the DRV PNK Stadium, is in support of Heineken’s ‘Brew a Better World’ campaign. In an effort to encourage recycling, sustainability and responsible alcohol consumption, fans are asked to return their beverage containers to the vending machines for the chance to win a prize. By inserting the empty drinks and scanning a QR code, participants receive a transaction ID.  They are then able to enter the details into a web app, where they can immediately find out whether they are a winner. Prizes up for grabs include club merchandise, exclusive access to stadium promotions, Heineken 0.0 non-alcoholic beer, and Inter Miami football shirts.

If the scheme is a success, UK venues may wish to follow suit. In 2019, the FA reported that over 135,000 drinks were purchased at the Community Shield final, so the impact of introducing reverse vending machines at, for example, Wembley Stadium, could be substantial. However, those hoping to take inspiration from Inter Miami and offer an incentive for recycling in the form of a prize will have to make sure all relevant rules are followed.

In Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), a prize draw has to comply with certain conditions in order to avoid falling foul of gambling laws, consumer regulations and the CAP Code (the UK’s non-broadcast advertising code).

Some relevant conditions in this context include:

  • Prize draws should be free to enter, albeit there is an exception which means the entrant can be required to buy a product (here the drink) to enter, as long as its price has not been inflated to cover the costs of the promotion;
  • The distribution of prizes must be done at random so the chance of success is the same for all entrants. If a random computer process is used to select the winners, promoters are also expected to be able to provide evidence that the winner was indeed selected by chance;
  • Prizes should be awarded as advertised and winners should not have to pay to find out what the prize is or to claim it;
  • Prize promotions should not feature alcoholic drinks if they’re directed at people under 18. The manner in which the reverse vending machines are promoted in stadia and to fans will therefore need to be done carefully to ensure that it is not seen to be targeting or attractive to under 18s;
  • Where a scheme like this is focussed around recycling alcoholic drink bottles, all of the rules relating to alcohol advertising will need to be complied with, but even if the reverse vending machines were limited to soft drink bottles, the general rules on promotions state that they should not encourage excessive consumption or irresponsible use of a product. The HFSS rules will also need to be taken into consideration.

The CAP Code also requires that the terms of the promotion must be clear and well publicised, detailing start and closing dates, how to participate, and any restrictions (such as age or place of residence). These significant details should be easily accessible at the reverse vending machine itself (i.e. prior to participation), with a QR code or URL directing the participant to the promotor’s website for the full terms.  

Marketers should also take care to avoid ‘greenwashing’, or making misleading environmental claims. Environmentalism is a hot topic at the moment and many companies are eager to make ‘green claims’ to shape their reputation as a sustainable brand. However, they will have to ensure that these statements comply with both the Green Claims Code, which was introduced by the Competition and Markets Authority in September 2021, and the CAP Code. Any claim should be clear, truthful, substantiated, and consider the full life cycle of the product. If an operator printed claims on a vending machine or in advertising materials stating that 100% of the bottles being placed into the machine would be recycled into new products, they would have to ensure that the statement reflected the reality.

Data protection is also relevant. If we return to our Wembley Stadium example, promotors could potentially be handling the data of up to 90,000 participants at a single match. This is an opportunity for promotors to collect a huge amount of information, but there must be a lawful basis for the planned processing of data – including in relation to any direct marketing activities – and promoters must be transparent about this. So promoters should ensure that an appropriate privacy notice is brought to the attention of participants and that any necessary marketing consents are obtained.

It’s also worth noting that the rules concerning prize promotions and gambling in Northern Ireland differ to the rest of the UK. Whilst the rules have recently changed in Northern Ireland to bring them more into line with the rest of the UK, promoters should seek advice before running promotional activities such as this in Northern Ireland (did we mention we’ve just opened a Belfast office…?).

 So, while we could see reverse vending machines popping up in UK stadia soon, the clubs, venues and brands behind these promotions will have to make sure they have taken account of all the legal and regulatory issues to make this potentially eco-friendly initiative a long-term success – and avoid any potential own goals.