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Teargas on democracy protesters? Bahrain Grand Prix sponsors say 'no problem'

It appears the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix scheduled for this weekend will go on, despite the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters there. Advertisers don't appear worried about any backlash.

By Staff writer / April 20, 2012

Tear gas fills the air Friday, April 20, near a damaged billboard for the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix (r.) as riot police prevent Bahraini antigovernment protesters from marching toward the hub of last spring's pro-democracy uprising at the end of a mass rally just outside Manama, Bahrain.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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Vodafone. Allianz. Reebok. Microsoft. Tag-Heur. All among the leaders in their respective fields. And these and dozens of other companies have, in effect, put their seal of approval on the actions of the monarchy in Bahrain.

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The Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place this weekend amid tens of thousands of protesters in Manama braving tear gas and birdshot as they demand political change in the tiny monarchy. Ferrari, Mercedes, and the other glamour teams are practicing today, will run in the qualifying round tomorrow, and will zoom off in the official race scheduled for Sunday, with an expected global TV audience of at least 100 million.

Some of the globe's best-known brands will have their logos spread across the barriers, the promotional literature, the broadcasts, and the cars themselves. That they're not concerned this amounts to a vote of confidence in a monarchy that has been accused of jailing and torturing peaceful demonstrators, with the aid of its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, is an indication that in the realm of international public opinion, the ruling Khalifa family is winning.

Take this from Allianz, one of the largest insurers in the world, on its involvement with the sport: "The partnership between Allianz and Formula One is a trusted alliance designed to highlight the importance of risk management and road safety as well as build the Allianz brand globally."

Brand building must go on.

Major corporations spend a lot of money worrying about their brands, and their research has told them that there's more money to be made than lost by carrying on with this weekend's event. Consumers either aren't aware of what's been going on in Bahrain, or don't care.

The Business and Human Rights Information Center says it contacted all of the sponsors of F1 teams, the organization, and the race itself. Only about half issued responses. The ones that did were generally bland and non-specific. Microsoft was fairly typical, writing. "We recognize the important responsibilities we have to respect human rights and work every day to meet our responsibilities. We invite dialogue with stakeholders and look forward to engaging in thoughtful discussions.”

Vodafone responded in a similar vein: "We are monitoring developments very closely and are aware of international concerns. However, the decision whether or not to proceed with the event is a matter for the teams and Formula 1."

Reebok, which has a sponsorship agreement with the Sahara Force India team, was a little more direct, writing "we will reach out to this team to understand their position on participation... given the ongoing civil unrest and evidence of human rights violations."

Bernie Ecclestone, whose financial control of F1 has made him a billionaire, struck a defiant tone with reporters today when they asked about the departure of two members of the Sahara Force India team, who flew home after seeing a burning car in Manama.

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