Ambush Marketing in the Olympics

The Olympic Partners (TOP) program, the highest level of Olympic sponsorship among four tiers, attracts some of the best-known multinational companies from across the globe. They lay the foundation for the staging of the Olympic games and help athletes from over 200 nations participate on the world’s biggest sporting stage. 

Given the scale and popularity of the Olympic games, it is not surprising to witness several companies coming forward to outfit such an event with their brands and products. These companies, irrespective of their size or tier, try to cash in on the event by affiliating themselves with the games, ultimately undermining the official sponsors and questioning the authenticity of the marketing and sponsorship genre.

Ambush marketing is one such practice wherein a rival company tries to associate its products with an event that already has official sponsors; in other words, tries to ambush a legitimate sponsor. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics saw a complete overhaul of the sponsorship program. The restructuring of sponsorship rights and the implementation of exclusivity was an overwhelming success financially, making it the first Olympics to be fully privately funded. But with the advent of exclusivity, companies that placed losing bids had to turn to more ‘creative’ advertising methods.

Kodak was one of the first companies to introduce the world to this technique. The corporation sponsored the US broadcast of the games and the US track team during the 1984 Olympics. Due to the large viewership, numerous spectators at home were led to believe that Kodak was an official sponsor of the Olympics- even though rival company Fuji had won the bid.

‘The credit war’ holds a close second place to the Pepsi-Cola war. Visa and American Express (or Amex) have been bitter rivals for time immemorial. This rivalry took an interesting turn during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when Visa’s tagline, ‘the Olympics don’t take American Express’, faced no opposition from the IOC (International Olympic Committee) due to its $20 million bid. In retaliation, Amex made it clear that ‘to visit Spain, you don’t need a visa’. American Express claimed that their ads were run only to remind people that their cards can be used in the rest of Spain, save except at the Olympics. Even after warnings from the IOC to both parties, the war continued in the ’94 and ’96 Olympics.

Reebok faced the unrelenting ambush tactics of Puma and Nike during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Linford Christie, the Olympic gold medal sprinter, agreed to wear blue contact lenses with the Puma logo (at the center of each lens) during a press conference held before the game, even though it was Reebok that had forked over $20 million for the exclusive rights to the event. On the other front, Nike ambushed Reebok by flooding the city with billboards and swoosh banners, and also built a massive centre overlooking the Olympic Park. Nike also put out several ads featuring top athletes, all the while avoiding the use of the Olympic logo.

Utilizing the varied demography of likes and interests of the spectators to ultimately cater to the tastes of the otherworldly game of competing sponsors is something to look out for. This competition extends to all mega-events. The 2010 FIFA World cup saw 36 female supporters advertising the Dutch non-alcoholic beer brand Bavaria, which tried to create an image of being the official patron, even though Carlsberg and Budweiser had secured the position of being the official sponsors for the event. Two women primarily organized Bavaria’s commercial event, and they sought out local women to help in the campaign. Although the stunt subsided eventually, it created a stir as the news associating Bavaria with the world cup reached the netizens and the public. 

Ambush marketing was visible in the 2012 Olympics through Nike’s “Find your Greatness” campaign. The sportswear giant’s marketing campaign ran in 25 countries, and it cleverly utilized loopholes in the strict rules for ambush marketing. The campaign centered around highlights from previous Olympic events that celebrated the successful athletes hailing from Jamaica, South Africa, and Ohio. While Adidas was the official sponsor, Nike’s campaign was able to pull many spectators into falsely believing the latter to be the official partner.  

Chinese dairy giants Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group and China Mengniu Dairy sparred over the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics after Yilli believed its competitor infringed its status as the event’s sponsor. The two archrivals have a significant share in the Chinese dairy products market; sponsoring the Olympics would yield savory benefits to their businesses as Chinese consumers are primarily motivated to consume foreign premium brands and products. Coming to the incident, a Yili dairy WeChat post on June 20, 2019, read on how Mengniu managed to get anchored by Coca-Cola, which is the Olympics official non-alcoholic beverages partner, ultimately gaining back door access to the sponsorship bonanza. The post further included Yili’s threat to back off from being the sponsor but they later retracted the statement. 

With the Tokyo Olympics set to occur in less than a month, uncertainty has loomed over many sponsors as they struggle to proceed with pre-pandemic ways of advertising. Amid the raging pandemic, Japan’s Asahi Breweries is still doubtful if spectators will be present in stadiums to buy their beers. This edition of the Olympics may not be as rewarding for the tech-savvy companies as well, who hoped to exhibit their technological marvels.  For instance, global sponsor Toyota Motor Corp had planned to roll out 3700 vehicles, including hydrogen fuel cell sedans and self-driving pods, to shuttle athletes and VIPs among venues. While such vehicles would still be functional during the Olympics, they would be used on a much smaller scale, robbing off the grandeur and hence, the impact on the audience worldwide. In what already seems like a not-so-gratifying season for Olympic sponsors of all tiers, it is only hoped that the Tokyo Olympics would witness fewer instances of ambush marketing and pave the way for future editions. 


The official media house of NIT Trichy.

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