In 1989, the Carnival Enterprise Committee became a limited company, the 'spirit of carnival was to be accommodated to the enterprise culture'. Claire Holder planned to negotiate a path for the carnival that would allow it to assume a multi-cultural London identity while staying true to its West Indian roots (Carver, 2000). However, the period of 1995-1999 was characterized by important commercial sponsorships of carnival which as defends Carver, led the carnival to lose its identity. Increasingly contained both physically and ideologically due to its sheer scale, but also due to the position it had come to occupy, Carnival’s status as Europe's largest street festival meant its preparations requires professional, well-orchestrated planning, but also marks it had to deliver a “respectable cultural menu” (Carver, 2000). It was crucial for carnival to attract headline sponsorships, this meant orienting it towards its harmonious and cathartic functions while eliminating its radical or revolutionary potential (Carver, 2000),the CAC (Carnival and Arts Committee) argued that Carnival should be a political event to be used as political lever to press for reforms and concessionsThe CDA argued that the Carnival was an artistic and creative event of its own kind, of value in its own right and that any attempt to exploit it would destroy its political impact. They defended that only if it was overtly non-political could it be politically efficient (Cohen, 1980).
In 1995, 1996 and 1997 the Carnival was re-branded “The Lilt Notting Hill Carnival”. In 1998, it was supported by Virgin Atlantic and it 1999 it was rebranded the “West Union Notting Hill Carnival”. In his paper, Carver demonstrates how the commercial sponsorships of carnival negatively impacted the event and more broadly the institution of carnival. He defends that sponsorships caused carnival to become a commodity, especially because of the name change. The original name ‘The Notting Hill Carnival” suggests that the carnival is a “local production of participatory pleasures in opposition to the imposed pleasures of the culture industry’. However, the change to ‘The Lilt Notting Hill Carnival’ suggests a change in authorship and ownership. This has the effect of turning carnival’s ownership to a “very specific corporate body rather than to a demographic and social context, and redefines the struggle for the streets as bureaucratic negotiation rather than political contest.”
Through their sponsorships, brands depoliticised the carnival, to their own advantage. According to Carver, Lilt’s interest resided on the spectacle element of carnival rather than its context, the latter being both irrelevant to the product and possibly damaging to its identity. Therefore, Carnival was presented not as a social utopia but a permanent sun-drenched holiday- people dancing in the streets, a festival of street art and a general celebration of popular creativity rather than a wholly culture-specific event. (Carver,2000). Brands were trying to push this spectacular, fun, “exotic” street party image of carnival, and it was becoming increasingly popular nationally and internationally. However, this decontextualisation of Carnival did not reduce the crime and violence that had been a constant since the 1976 riots. The uprising against the police, which in 1976 were given context and associated with a rebellion against the status quo, was now reduced to mindless criminality. As quoted by Carver “without the breach or weight there appears to be no context for social crisis; crisis simply does not fit with the Lilt culture”.
Increasingly, there was considerable press coverage which focused on the disorder and the crime at Notting Hill Carnival. Until today, it is felt that the press took and is still taking an unfairly negative and one-sided view of the carnival. The event also lost popularity with the Royal Bough of Chelsea Kensington ‘who declared war’ on the Carnival Enterprise Committee (The Telegraph, 2001). The CEC was also facing internal issues and financial scandals. Consequently, due to this negative reputation brands dropped out from sponsoring Carnival. In 2003 Carnival’s sponsorship income had been reduced to £150,000 from over £400,000 in previous years (Marketing Week, 2003).
In the last decade, brands have slowly made their way back into Notting Hill Carnival, without, however, ‘headline sponsoring” the event. Instead, brands such as Puma, Adidas, Converse and Red Bull have been hosting their own ticketed events inside of Carnival.