Ambush Marketing – Part One

As the Olympic Games is now under way, with women’s football taking place even before the official opening ceremony, it seemed like a useful time to consider the problem that the event organisers face from ambush marketing, and how the media are already reporting some of the stories that are emerging.

There have been a number of stories already about what can and can’t be taken into Olympic venues. Lord Coe has had to field questions about whether  a Pepsi T shirt could be worn by a spectator, and his attempts to give an answer have led to confusion and considerable media coverage – no doubt to the delight of Pepsi and the chagrin of the official sponsor Coca Cola. See here.

From a media point of view, this is all good, knockabout “the law is an ass” stuff. The incidental absurdities of the efforts venue operators have to go to in order to protect their rights always raises a number of journalistic hackles. However, there are serious issues at stake.

Everybody understands that for major sporting events to take place and to enjoy the benefit of world class staging there have to be commercial sponsors. There is enough unease already about the cost of hosting the Olympics in austerity times: without input from sponsors who pay large sums of money for their association with the Games the costs would be much higher, and the nature and quality of the events that result could be compromised.

The nature of the sponsorship packages the major sponsors buy is such that each sponsor is granted exclusivity within its market sector, so that it can be assured that its rivals don’t enjoy similar rights. Sponsorship agreements are lengthy and complex documents that include numerous provisions aimed at securing that exclusivity for the sponsor, and ensuring that the event organiser takes adequate steps against ambush marketing by rivals. The rivals in question are those who seek using ambush marketing techniques to secure the benefit of association with the event without having paid for it. Often the ingenious and outrageous steps taken by ambush marketers generate more coverage than the more sober “corporate” style of advertising the official sponsors must stick to under the terms of their contract. Nobody wants to have advantage taken of them and appear “square” at the same time.

The sums required to pay for the sponsorship packages for a major event such as the Olympic Games and the cost of supporting and adequately exploiting the accompanying rights packages mean that the kind of company that becomes a sponsor is always going to be a major global player in its field. Such a company and brand may therefore become the target for some resentment from many who see the involvement of mega-rich corporations as contradictory to the Olympic spirit. People viewing the sponsors in that way may see ambush marketing as a bit of harmless fun or even as a blow struck against the multinationals.

Ambush marketing is a term invented by a marketing guru called Jerry Welsh in the early 1990s, when this was a comparatively new phenomenon. I would suggest that the term has become out of date. How is it “ambush” marketing when everyone knows it’s going to happen, major multinational corporations themselves indulge in it, and often publicise in advance what they are going to do?

A recent news story has suggested that Nike – hardly the plucky underdog operating on a shoestring – is planning what has been described as an “ambush” campaign. See here . It seems that Nike have ensured that there will be nothing illegal in their campaign – but that, as they did at Atlanta in 1996 (when they handed out banners to spectators, put billboards around the city and set up a Nike centre near to the stadium) they will use considerable ingenuity to gain not only an outlet for advertising but also endless media coverage surrounding and related to the Games without being an official sponsor.

So, harmless fun, as many saw was the case with the women in orange dresses advertising Bavaria beer at the World Cup (see here ), or unfair opportunism that puts the value of crucial sponsorship agreements at risk?

In some further blogs I’ll be looking at ambush marketing in further detail and some of the main legal and commercial arguments it provokes.

Published July 25, 2012

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