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Volume 23 No. 17
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Who owns Games? Time to retire term ‘ambush marketing’

As the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games approach, the term “ambush marketing” will once again take center stage on the sports business and sponsorship landscape. If history holds true, the marketing competition between official sponsors and those brands who elect to legally engage in campaigns that create an unofficial association with the Games will default to this pejorative term. Yet, when media use the term “ambush marketing,” they are in essence choosing sides: They are opting to side with sport properties rights holders and their official sponsors in wittingly or unwittingly positioning the practice as somehow wrong, unfair and unethical.

There is another option for the media: Reject the notion that sport properties and official sponsors somehow own the entire thematic space of their events … and find a new term to use.

Although just who originally coined the term “ambush marketing” is unclear (some evidence suggests the term first appeared in the pages of AdWeek during its coverage of the 1984 Summer Olympics), what’s not in question is that the term — couched with negative connotations — gained immediate traction and has since become ingrained in sport sponsorship lexicon. One can only wonder what might have transpired in the reportage of sport sponsorship competition if the media had originally adopted a more neutral term such as IMG’s “associative marketing” or “parallel marketing.”

We recently conducted a content-analysis study, specifically looking at judgment-based narrative and terminology, to determine how English-language major international daily newspapers and a major U.S. trade publication has covered the practice of “ambush marketing.” We examined a total of 224 articles that employed the term “ambush marketing” specifically in conjunction with the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, since these are the two most high-profile sporting events in terms of rights holders’ concern over ambush marketing.

We found that, over a 32-year period, the vast majority of print media articles adopted and endorsed the perspective of sports property rights holders, describing the marketing activities of nonsponsors with pejoratively loaded terminology, including a litany of terms and phrases including “exploit,” “sneaky,” “stunt,” “free-loaders” and “riding their coattails.” The prevalent theme spoke of nonsponsors “skirting the rules” and contravening “regulations” and “restrictions” set forth by the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, and describes a competitive, confrontational, often parasitic relationship between ambushers and sponsors, further supporting the pejorative view of ambush marketing as put forward by the rights holders. Furthermore, reporting frequently emphasized the ethical and legal arguments surrounding ambush marketing practices, typically condemning the ambushers for their unfair or immoral activities.

Nike launched its campaign at the start of the 2012 Games but was not an Olympic sponsor.
Fortunately, however, our study suggests that the influence once exerted by these rights holders may be waning. Coverage of the practice of ambush marketing may be undergoing a paradigm shift. Within the past four years (beginning with the 2012 London Games), our study found that the print reportage has undergone a subtle shift in tone, illustrated by a pronounced increase in media discourse guided by the nonsponsor perspective. This has included questioning — and in some cases even ridiculing — the IOC’s and FIFA’s anti-ambush marketing and brand protection strategies.

Part of this shift in reportage may be a function of the widely publicized, heavy-handed approach taken by the IOC and the London Organizing Committee in enforcing its anti-ambush marketing program. This enforcement strategy (also employed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa) included threatening to bar fans from entering event facilities while wearing apparel or carrying products branded by nonofficial sponsors. When reporting this scenario, the print media almost unanimously championed the right of fans to wear, carry and consume whatever products they wished within the competition venue. Marketing campaigns by nonsponsors were seemingly suspect … until the sport property impinged on the rights of fans.

Admittedly, articles that embrace ambush marketing and endorse the pejorative perspective of nonsponsors “cheating the Games” will no doubt appear throughout the Rio Summer Games; after all, controversy sells. However, if the trend found within our study holds true, we expect (and hope) to find more print media reporters shifting their tone and perspective. Instead of embracing the pejorative view dictated by rights holders and official sponsors, it’s time to acknowledge, once and for all, that sport properties and official sponsors don’t own the entire thematic space of their sporting events. Given the realities of competition within the sport sponsorship space, perhaps the Rio Games will become known as the Games in which the pejorative-laden term “ambush marketing” was retired.

Steve McKelvey (mckelvey@isenberg.umass.edu) is an associate professor in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. Nick Burton (nburton@brocku.ca) is an assistant professor in the Department of Sport Management at Brock University.