Ambush Marketing, Rule 40, and the Sochi Controversy You Aren’t Hearing About

Have Olympic advertising partnerships gotten too big? Have rules and restrictions protecting these “official sponsors” gone too far?

Dawn Harper Tweets her Opinion of Olympic Rule 40

Dawn Harper Tweets her Opinion of Olympic Rule 40

Two-time track and field medalist Dawn Harper thinks so.  That’s why she posted this tweet with #Rule40 in protest of the IOC’s infamous Rule 40 during the 2012 Olympics in London.

If you aren’t yet familiar with Rule40, it is a total ban on an athlete’s promotion of personal sponsors and their ability to acknowledge those who helped them get where they are today. It is especially focused on social media, where it has become a commonplace for athletes to thank sponsors with pictures and personal statements.

Harper isn’t the only athlete to voice her displeasure with the effective “gag order” on competitors, but with companies spending upwards of $100,000,000.00 to associate their brands with the Olympics Games, is it really that hard to see why #Rule40 is in effect?

Some have even gone as far to refer to the situation as a “battle”. Yet, despite the activism surrounding #rule40, without a doubt the biggest threat to the official Olympic sponsors is the ever-pervasive ambush marketers, silently stalking and waiting for their chance to steal some the Olympic brand name.

These controversial ambush marketing campaigns attempt to capitalize on high-visibility events and locations through brand association without having to pay for the high-cost of officially sponsoring an event. My favorite example of ambush marketing involved the Minnesota Timberwolves selling this advertisement on the side of their stadium, where it happens to only be viewable from inside the nearby Minnesota Twins baseball stadium (where the official sponsor is Target).

View of Timberwolves basketball stadium from inside the Twins baseball stadium

View of Timberwolves basketball stadium from inside the Twins baseball stadium

Ambush marketing may have been around in the advertising world for years, but the Olympics are seen as “the flagship event for ambush marketing”. Creative campaigns by infamous ambush advertisers like Nike often times attract more online buzz and conversation than the actual official sponsors.

During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa officially sponsored by Reebok, advertising juggernaut and infamous ambush marketer Nike, placed an eye-catching ad on the fourth tallest building in the entire city of Johannesburg. When paired with a lengthy viral video, many agreed that Nike had effectively hijacked the sponsorship from Reebok and gained closer brand association with the World Cup event.

Nike ad in Johannesburg during World Cup 2010

Nike ad in Johannesburg during World Cup 2010

Another ambush marketing giant, Subway, has already launched its attempt to steal some association from the upcoming Sochi games.  Summer Olympian Michael Phelps and retired speed-skating icon Apollo Ohno both appear in TV commercials for Subway’s “$5 foot long campaign” due to some legal loopholes discovered by Subway.

So is it reasonable for the IOC to implement Rule 40 to help protect sponsors? Freeskiier David Wise recently commented that, “[he] understand[s] the Olympics are a moneymaking game, but it’s sad for [him] to have all these sponsors who have really taken care of [him]…[he’s] on the biggest stage [he] can possibly be on and [he] can’t give them the representation they deserve.”

Another athlete and social media enthusiast, Nick Goepper, has stated that he will be completely off of social media for the entirety of the Olympics. “I think it might be safer not to tweet anything,” said Nick, the 19-year-old favorite to win Ski Slopestyle gold. “All I know, it’s pretty much zero tolerance for branding.”

The Sochi games are only 3 days away, but the media blackout protecting the games’ sponsors has been in effect since January 26. When the final medal is awarded and the closing ceremonies complete, which brands will you associate with the games? Which advertisements and commercials will be the most talked about and discussed? Is $100,000,000 too much to pay for a loose association with the Olympic rings?

Will the “ambushers” steal the spotlight once again?

– Greg Rothman