‘Unethical’ guerrilla marketing tactics stalk Olympics sponsors

Across from Athens’s showcase Olympic stadium complex, a red and yellow banner flutters decoratively in a spray of Chinese script. To most, it’s inscrutable, but to Chinese speakers, it’s an Olympic ad for a telecoms company. Welcome to ambush marketing, where you can cover yourself in Olympic glory without having to pay a cent. The practice, also known as guerrilla marketing, describes how companies try to associate themselves with an event without paying sponsorship fees or steal the show from the official sponsor, particularly when that happens to be a competitor. And the more high-profile an event, the more it’s worth it. «Sports sponsorship is big business,» said Richard Hawkins, a lawyer in Bird & Bird’s international sports group. «Companies will pay millions to obtain the benefits of being associated with sports events such as the Olympics. Other companies will try and obtain these benefits for free.» Famously, in the 1998 Soccer World Cup in France, Nike set up a theme park in Paris and got the Brazilian team to launch it, attracting a quarter of a million visitors and almost as much brand recognition as its main rival Adidas, the official sponsor. And for a Heineken Cup rugby match in Dublin, a big Guinness blimp was launched from a local resident’s garden so it was in full view of all spectators in the stadium. Olympic pull Andrew Hobson, head of Intellectual Property at the London firm of Reynolds Porter Chamberlain said the practice was legal, provided the ambusher is careful. «Most countries have enacted trademark type protection for the Olympic name and logo. Provided you stay away from that and stay within the general laws relating to advertising it is legal.» In the case of the Games, with research showing the Olympic rings are one of the most recognized symbols in the world – bringing up associations of success and high standards – the temptation to try and get away with it is just too great. «The IOC hates it and calls it unethical, because it fears it devalues the sponsorship it is trying to sell at a vast price,» Hobson added. In the runup to the Athens Games, companies from drinks makers to electronics manufacturers have run adds featuring no-name athletes or images of Greece and slogans like «the race is on» or «share the spirit of Greece,» with no reference to the «O» word. «The IOC and ATHOC are likely to take the view that in moral terms, ambush marketing is akin to theft – if you do not own the right to be associated with the Olympics, to confuse the public into thinking that you are associated is stealing those rights,» Hawkins said. Danielle De Ramee, brand protection manager for Athens 2004, said that the Olympic charter called for brand-free venues. «If you have one spectator who walks into an event with a Pepsi T-shirt, no one will be concerned, but if you have a group of people dressed up in a certain brand, or a huge brand, we have to kindly ask them to turn their T-shirts inside out.» For billboards and posters outside the venues, a law passed in Greece a few weeks ago stipulates that only sponsors are allowed to advertise and benefit by their association with the Games during the event. «Our sponsors have invested a lot of money to help us make these Games and we want the rights we gave to them to be respected, so we have to make sure that no one is infringing on those rights,» Ramee added. In practice, that means whited-out billboards of rival brands and covered-up signs in the greater Athens region and in all Olympic cities across Greece. But in between protecting their rights and policing the ad space of the city, sponsors might be pushing public patience a bit. «I only have a Mastercard, and they only take (Games sponsor) Visa,» said 29-year old Sasha, a German tourist, while walking out of the Olympic Store in central Athens. «So I either have to run around to find a bank and take out cash, or not buy. Absurd, isn’t it?»

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