Why ambush marketing should be an option during the Olympics—as long as no laws are broken

by | May 17, 2024 | Marketing, Public Relations

It’s almost Olympics time again, and soon the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will again pull out its crying towel and complain about ambush marketing campaigns aimed at sponsors of the Paris Summer Olympics, which will be staged in the City of Lights from July 26 to August 11.

Years ago, as a young child, I bought the sports business propaganda message that “sports are good, sports are pure.” 

But very shortly after landing a job with a New York City daily as a sports reporter (before moving on to the public relations field) my opinion of sports did a 180-degree turn as I witnessed unsportsmanlike behavior on all levels of the sports scene—high school, college and the pros. 

Also changed was my opinion of the sanctity of sports sponsorships, and when sports became a multi-billion business I saw no problem with ambush marketing initiatives. After all, isn’t free enterprise an important part of the American economic system, and restraint of trade against the law? I always thought so. But the sports cartels cry “unfair” when a company unleashes an ambush marketing campaign without breaking any laws. 

My approval of ambush marketing continued to slowly grow through the years

The major reason for my unconditional support occurred during the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012, when U.S. track and field athletes, sustained by brands that are not official sponsors of the games, protested about the gag rule, which prohibited them from mentioning their sponsors.(I guess the Olympic ideal does not include freedom of speech, which is no surprise to me considering the IOC is an organization that sees no problems about having their games being played in countries like Hitlerruled Nazi Germany, Russia and China that prohibits free speech,) 

I think it’s nonsensical to ban athletes from promoting their unofficial sponsors

Permitting these athletes to promote brands that support them year-long makes sense. Instead of accusing these athletes and brands of evil doings, the IOC should be thankful that unofficial sponsors make it possible for athletes to train throughout the years between Olympic Games. 

Why should ambush marketers be labeled immoral by official sponsors of multi-million-dollar sports events that hawk unhealthy products like alcoholic beverages and junk foods and willingly provide the finances that permit the IOC to stage its games in totalitarian countries, some of which are enemies of the U.S.?

The IOC claims that they stand for human rights, but cave when host countries deny those rights to its citizens, because, as former IOC president Jacques Rogge said numerous times, the IOC is only a sports organization and cannot control host governments. But by awarding their games to totalitarian countries like Russia and China the IOC knowingly provides a powerful propaganda tool to those governments. 

Fortunately, companies that are proficient in ambush marketing aren’t cowed by the cartels of the sporting world. And that’s good for commercial competition and what’s good for business competition is good for all Americans. 

Ambush marketing has also provided a welcome dose of creativity in comparison to the too often cookie-cutter-like official Olympic programs

A few of the memorable ambush marketing campaigns were American Express saying that Americans don’t need Visas to travel to Norway for the 1994 Winter Olympics; Nike’s telling Joe and Jane Citizen athletes that they can find their greatness in cities around the world named London, during the 2012 London Summer Olympics, and Beat Electronics providing Olympians with free headphones, which were recognizable on television. 

There is only so much room in the news budgets for Olympics marketing stories (which mainly end up in trade pubs). The way to prevent ambush marketing programs from gaining coverage is for the PR and advertising agencies that represent official sponsors is to craft clever programs that are more newsworthy than those of the ambushers. But most official Olympic programs seem to come out of Cookie Cutter University. 

The IOC has no problem about awarding its games to totalitarian governments that practice censorship and enact undemocratic laws. Why anyone feels that an organization with such a checkered history deserves special marketing privileges for its sponsors is beyond my reasoning. 

Until then my advice to PR people who represent clients that want to be associated with the Olympics and other mega-sporting events, but don’t have the deep pockets to do so, is to consider ambush marketing, because the media doesn’t care if a sponsor is “official” or “unofficial.” Give them a good story and they’ll cover it. 

But a caveat: Clever ambush marketing programs can result in legal problems for a client

For the Paris Olympics, and any other event, it is imperative for any proposed ambush program be vetted by an attorney who is up to date with anti-ambush marketing laws to make certain that elements of the program do not include legally protected “official sponsors” rights, like trade marks or other intellectual property or fall into the category of false or misleading advertising. And PR people must remember that press releases, social media posts or comments are a form of advertising, 

But as long as no laws are broken, ambush marketing is okay with me and let the crying of those being ambushed and the IOC begin.

Of all the sporting events, I believe that the Olympics is the most important of all

But, in my opinion, that does not mean that the boys and girls from Switzerland should be given any special privileges because it’s undeniable that the Olympics is more than a sporting event. Its sponsors support the games with millions of dollars in the hope of selling more products and attracting new customers. That makes the Olympics a business venture. And like any business, it should succeed or fall on the merits of its product and not be protected by special legislation. 

If anything, the IOC, its sponsors and NBCUniversal, the network that televises the games in the U.S., should be criticized for helping promote totalitarian governments over the years by providing propaganda platforms for the oppressive countries that have been awarded the games. 

To citizens of totalitarian countries that have been jailed for not toeing the undemocratic lines of their governments, the Olympics are not games. They are a shame. 

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.


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