SBJ/October 22-28, 2012/Opinion

Ambush marketing lessons from the London Olympic Games

Despite all the muscle-flexing of the London Summer Olympic Games brand police, the jury remains out on the topic of ambush marketing simply because … the jury was never called in. What promised to be a full-scale siege in the battle against ambush marketing ended with a fizzle.

Across each of the most recent Olympic Games, event organizers have implemented stricter (and arguably overprotective) measures to ensure that official sponsors are protected from ambush marketing, a controversial practice whereby businesses that are not official sponsors conduct advertising and promotional activities that seek to capitalize on the event’s good will, reputation and popularity. From a strictly legal standpoint, ambush marketers rarely infringe on the trademarks of the sport organization or event that they are allegedly ambushing, making “brand protection” efforts difficult.

As a bid requirement to hosting the London Games, special legislation was enacted by the British government to provide the Olympic Movement with additional ambush marketing protection for the period of time surrounding London’s hosting of the Games. This legislation created the London Olympics Association Right, an unprecedented approach to protecting Olympic intellectual property that future host countries are likely to emulate. This “right of association” specified that implying a commercial or contractual association with the Olympics would violate the LOAR (albeit the legislation did provide a safe harbor for “honest” business practices).

Before the Games, the aggressive ways in which the International Olympic Committee and the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games enforced the legislation left many crying foul. For example, in May, the Olympics’ brand police were successful in halting a window display simulating the Olympic rings made from plastic gym ropes and Olympic torches crafted from old “For Sale” signs at a real estate agency. The display was witnessed by LOCOG officials during the Olympic torch relay. LOCOG demanded that the trademark-infringing display be removed or else face formal legal action: “Whilst we appreciate your enthusiasm and support, use of the Olympic rings in the window of a commercial office inevitably creates an association between [the real estate chain] and the Games and allows the [real estate] brand to benefit from the goodwill and excitement of the Olympic Torch Relay.” Remarked a branch manager of the real estate agency: “We thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This is not about the Olympics for people. This is about the Olympics for [official sponsors] Lloyds Bank, Samsung and Coca-Cola.” It was later acknowledged that two LOCOG lawyers accompanied the entire torch relay to address any other potential incidents of ambush marketing.

Other small businesses, such as a butcher who displayed sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings, were also ensnared in LOCOG’s ambush marketing crackdown. With this type of aggressive enforcement called “lunacy” by those affected, industry observers and critics questioned why LOCOG was choosing to go after small businesses seeking to share in the celebration of their country’s hosting the Games. Moreover, from a strategic perspective, these local businesses posed no real commercial threat to global Olympic sponsors like Coca-Cola, Samsung and Adidas.

Nike’s campaign was timed to coincide with London’s opening ceremony.
Once the Games began and the incidents of true ambush marketing revved up, enforcement efforts seemingly kept a much lower profile. For example, Nike, no stranger to the Olympic ambush game, used its high-profile campaign “Find your greatness” to showcase ordinary athletes finding greatness in cities around the world named London (talk about clever!). With the start of the campaign timed to coincide just a few days before the opening ceremony, Nike’s actions initially raised the ire of LOCOG’s brand enforcement team. However, it relented, promising to “monitor the situation” and ultimately determined that a lawsuit was unwarranted. Nike’s performance achieved a high level of global consumer awareness among Olympic visitors, television and online audiences.

Another high-profile ambush incident was launched by Irish online betting site Paddy Power, whose billboard ad featured a fictitious egg and spoon race in London, France. The billboards claimed Paddy Power was the “Official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year! There you go, we said it (ahem, London France that is).” LOCOG directed the outdoor advertising space provider to remove the billboards as a violation of the Olympic special legislation but was forced to retreat when Paddy Power sought a court order blocking removal of the billboards. Paddy Power argued the content did not contravene the special legislation. Media outlets suggested that LOCOG’s reversal was strategic in order to avoid negative publicity during the height of the Games. In hindsight, Paddy Power’s cheeky billboards may be notorious for their typically irreverent creativity but also noteworthy for the response it provoked by LOCOG.

A third well-publicized example of alleged ambush marketing was Beats Electronics’ recognizable headphones, Beats by Dre, worn prominently by American and British Olympic athletes on the pool deck and before athletic events at Olympic Stadium, thus providing international TV exposure. Others implementing well-publicized marketing campaigns conducted without legal recourse included, but were not limited to, Tetley Tea, Red Bull, Virgin Media, Puma and Mizuno.

Undoubtedly, the legislation deterred many smaller and risk-averse companies from engaging in ambush marketing or simply showing their local pride and excitement about hosting the Games. However, it proved ineffective in thwarting companies who were both clever and intent on associating with the Games. It’s indeed ironic that the legislation and the threats of legal action stopped so many companies that were not intent on ambush marketing, but were unable to stop all those companies that were blatantly seeking to ambush. Furthermore, the overzealous approach to its brand protection efforts arguably served to tarnish the Olympic brand, given the amount of negative publicity that surrounded these efforts.

It will be interesting to see, when the United States next hosts an Olympic Games, whether our Congress and local legislators would be willing to enact special legislation that provides the IOC and the local organizing committee with ambush marketing protection as broad as that afforded the IOC and LOCOG for the London Games.

John Grady (jgrady@mailbox.sc.edu) is an associate professor in the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. Steve McKelvey (mckelvey@isenberg.umass.edu) is an associate professor in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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