Melbourne Cup: why brands are quietly distancing themselves from the ‘race that stops the nation’

For nearly four decades, Myer partnered with the Melbourne Cup to sponsor Fashions on the Field. But this year, the department store pulled the pin. It’s one of many brands and businesses over the years that have changed how they view and celebrate the “race that stops the nation”.

Many have done so quietly – or, like Myer, have distanced themselves without taking a political stance on the social and animal harms associated with the race.

The convener of the Nup to the Cup campaign, Kristin Leigh, says businesses are responding to a growing ambivalence towards a race that was once closely embedded in Australia’s national identity. But many are also keeping “tightlipped to play it safe politically”.

“Horse racing has become very political, so either way [businesses] remaining involved or backing out could cause them issues.”

In 2019, when the ABC aired a segment that showed footage of retired race horses ending up at the slaughterhouse, Leigh says it proved a tipping point for many businesses who’d long run office sweeps and aired the event for staff.

“We had hundreds of people ringing with their concerns and businesses asking how to manage a conflict they’re seeing in the office where some want to take part but others don’t,” she says.

This included a major bank that appeased division of views among staff by running both a Nup to the Cup event and airing the race in two separate rooms. The bank declined to comment to Guardian Australia.

Leigh says a number of businesses that sought the campaign’s advice went on to host Nup the Cup events for staff, raising funds for the campaign. But when the campaign asked if it could thank them publicly for their donation, many businesses requested them not to.

“They preferred it was kept hush,” she says.

Gold Trip winning last year’s Melbourne Cup
The 2022 Melbourne Cup. Some influencers attending the races now do so in a way that doesn’t attract attention, says one agency. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Prof Lisa Farrell, an economics and marketing expert at RMIT University in Melbourne, agrees with Leigh that companies are playing it politically safe. She says it is an expected response from brands and companies as they attempt to figure out where they fit in the market and how staff view the event.

“When you have cultural change happening, it can be difficult to know when that turn really occurs,” Farrell says. “Companies can be unsure how to react amid that uncertainty so it can be better to quietly go about their business as opposed to doing it publicly, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here.”

After Myer ended its partnership – which began in 1983 – as the naming rights sponsor for Fashions on the Fields, the company’s chief executive, John King, said Myer was incredibly proud of its contribution to the event.

“While the decision not to renew the sponsorship was a difficult one, it aligns with our ongoing strategic objectives and marketing priorities,” he said. King did not specify in the statement why the event no longer aligned with Myer’s priorities.

“We remain committed to delivering exceptional customer experiences and supporting initiatives that resonate and add value to our customers, our stores, our online offer and our brand.”

It came after the group Collective Fashion Justice launched a targeted campaign against Myer last year, calling on it to withdraw all funding from the racing industry.

“The fact Fashion on the Fields now has no major sponsor is really telling,” says Emma Hakansson of Collective Fashion Justice. “Brands do not want to risk their social licence.”

Hakansson says some brands – including David Jones, Myer and Country Road – appear to no longer be promoting racing fashion, instead opting for wording such as “spring events”. Farrell says this decision may reflect consumers shopping less for race day fashions, or cost-of-living pressures prompting companies to avoid advertising around high-end activities.

Meanwhile, some influencers attending the races are doing so in a way that does not attract attention.

“Some talent flat out refuse to be associated and, if attending, have safeguards in check to forbid being visually associated with the events,” says Clare Winterbourn, the chief executive of an agency for influencers, Born Bred Talent.

Other major sponsors have also pulled away. In 2020, insurance giant AAMI decided to not renew its sponsorship with the Victorian Racing Club, saying it was part of a business strategy to grow the AAMI brand nationally. The next year, the AAMI Derby Day became the Penfolds Derby Day after the winemaker signed on as the major sponsor.

In June Network 10, which had held the broadcasting rights for the Melbourne Cup since 2019, decided not to pursue the contract for coverage after this year.

“Throughout the course of the current negotiations, it became clear that the nature of the agreement between Tabcorp and the VRC would require a move towards a core racing and wagering-focused broadcast product,” a 10 spokesperson said.

Simon Lee, the executive creative director at the Hallway, an independent creative agency, told Guardian Australia in the last 20 years there had been a 59% decline in TV viewership of the cup, according to Nielsen figures.

“When you look at the viewing figures and then at the long held title of ‘the race that stops a nation’ you’d have to think it certainly isn’t stopping the nation now,” he says.

“Is the Melbourne Cup worth sponsoring from a brand point of view or is the Melbourne Cup worth being associated with? I think it would be really easy to just look at those top line viewing figures and go well, no.”

Older generations appear to still have an affection for the tradition of the races, Lee says, but for young people, the event’s association with alcohol and gambling is making it less popular.

“What we’re seeing is a long-term trend of generational consciousness,” Lee says. “To put it simply: for younger generations, it’s just not cool any more.”

“And then you add to that the very topical issue of the cost of living crisis. You can see the lavish excess of the event might be considered inappropriate.”

In a statement, Victoria Racing Club said it has some of the most enduring relationships in sport.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a stable line-up of partners and a full sponsor portfolio for a number of years and while from time-to-time some companies choose to focus on other activities, it creates the opportunity for new partners to join the VRC family, including the most recent addition in Howden Insurance Brokers.

“We are looking forward to delivering another magical Melbourne Cup Carnival alongside our loyal partners, and look forward to showcasing four great days of world class racing, fashion, food and entertainment.”

The next big focus for the Nup to the Cup campaign and the Greens is to pressure existing corporate sponsors – including Lexus, Furphy, Penfolds, and Kennedy – to also end their partnership with the race.

“It’s time for sponsors to catch up with the times,” says the Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi. “The clock is ticking on this carnival of cruelty.”

Farrell believes the message from sponsors and the broader public is not being lost on the Melbourne Cup.

“We are starting to see the Melbourne Cup reflect on what consumers are wanting from the festival – for it to be less about racing and more about spring, fashion and food.”