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Ambush Marketing – an Olympic headache

Billions of people around the world will be focussing on the Olympics and Paralympics this summer. It is for this reason that many companies may see the games as a marketing opportunity which is too good to miss.

February 2012

Official sponsorship deals, however, are not for everyone and some businesses will have another agenda altogether: ambush marketing. Being challenger brands might be part of their brand ethos. Others may simply want to refer to what everyone else is thinking and talking about.

Ambush marketing is described by the IOC as "a planned attempt by a third party to associate itself directly or indirectly with the Olympic Games to gain the recognition and benefits moneyassociated with being an Olympic partner". The IOC believes that such activities are very damaging to the value of the event and official sponsors' investments in it. However, for the ambush marketer it can be a cost-effective method of obtaining a beneficial association with a prestigious event but without the hefty price tag.

The legal prohibitions on ambush marketing are considered in another of our articles this month. In short, UK legislation prohibits unauthorised commercial associations with the games or the Olympic movement.

The lure of extensive and possibly worldwide publicity means that companies have done their best to associate themselves with past Olympics. The extensive controls in place for the 2012 games have, however, not always been in place to guard against such activities. A number of examples over the last 30 years demonstrate what ambushers have achieved; we consider below how the 2012 regime may have applied to them.

  • At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, whilst Fujifilm was the official sponsor, its rival Kodak sponsored the television broadcasts and the US track team, causing many consumers to believe Kodak was the Official sponsor. The tables were turned in 1988 when Kodak was the official sponsor but Fujifilm sponsored the US swimming team.
    • Sponsorship of national sports teams is still possible but sponsors will have to be careful how they market that sponsorship in the UK, to ensure they do not create prohibited associations with the 2012 games or the Olympics.
    • official sponsors will be able to sponsor broadcasts of the Olympics and they will be offered the advertising slots during those broadcasts before they are offered to anyone else.
  • basketballIn 1992, Nike sponsored Michael Jordan and the US basketball team and, much to the annoyance of Adidas (the official clothing sponsor), Jordan covered up the Adidas logo with an American flag during his medal ceremony.
    • Nike's rights to Jordan would be limited: the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from allowing their image to be used in any form of advertising during the games. In addition, LOCOG has purchased 99% of the advertising space around the Olympic venues and official sponsors will have a first right of refusal.
    • However, it is hard to see on what grounds LOCOG could complain about the deliberate covering up of a logo; this is a form of "un-advertising" rather than the advertising which the UK regulation seeks to prevent.
  • During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Nike (which was not a sponsor), bought up a significant proportion of the billboard space around the venues and built a Nike Village next to the athletes' village (which was under construction during the Olympics but displayed a very prominent Nike sign). Nike also handed out flags to spectators which had a far greater visual impact than the footwear of official sponsor Reebok.
    • This kind of activity is now prohibited by "clean venue" regulations, which seek to ensure that no unofficial advertising appears on or around the field of play or is seen by TV cameras.
    • The tickets to the games contain restrictions on what spectators can take into the Olympic venues; for example "objects bearing trademarks or other kinds or promotional signs or messages (such as hats, T-shirts, bags, etc) which LOCOG believes are for promotional purposes" are prohibited.
  • Even though Reebok was an official sponsor of the 1996 games, Puma achieved huge publicity when Linford Christie wore contact lenses displaying the Puma logo to an Olympic press conference (which Puma had also sponsored).
    • Again, this is the kind of activity now targeted by clean venue regulations and the prohibition on athlete advertising during the games.
    • Further, the British Olympic Association has set down guidelines requiring athletes to enter into Team Member Agreements which will prevent athletes from advertising for non-official sponsors.
  • The official Olympic airline was a victim of ambush marketing the 2000 Sydney games, when Qantas used the tagline "the spirit of Australia" which was reminiscent of the Sydney Olympic slogan "Share the Spirit". This led to many consumers believing that Qantas was the official sponsor, to the dismay of the actual sponsor, Ansett Air.
    • This kind of allusive activity is on the boundaries of what might be prohibited: there is no direct connection to the Olympics but the intention of the advertising seems to be to refer to the Olympics. It is examples like these that will test the "association right" to its limits and there may be court cases over the coming months which give much needed guidance (as, at present, we only have LOCOG’s view of what is acceptable).

httpThe 2012 restrictions are therefore much more robust than those seen at previous Olympics and have been designed with ambushers' past behaviour in mind. Whether these will be enough to protect the integrity of the official sponsorship deals remains to be seen. The global rise of social media over the last few years is seeing London 2012 billed as the first truly digital Olympics, presenting unprecedented opportunities for intentional and accidental ambush marketing to “go viral”. We can expect a far more internet and mobile based approach to marketing than ever before. It will be intriguing to see what unofficial sponsors hungry for Olympic publicity will come up with.

If you have any questions on this article please contact us.

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Emma Allen

Emma Allen  

Adam Rendle

Adam Rendle






Emma Allen and Adam Rendle consider how the 2012 legal regime may have applied to past examples of ambush marketing.

"We can expect a far more internet and mobile based approach to marketing than ever before. It will be intriguing to see what unofficial sponsors hungry for Olympic publicity will come up with."