From the vibrant opening ceremony to the magical Usain Bolt, London 2012 was a huge success. For brands that had pumped millions into the event, victory came in a different form: there was next to no ambush marketing.
In the build-up to London 2012, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) was undoubtedly anxious. Ambush marketing has a long and rich history in sport, stretching back at least to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Then, when unofficial partner Kodak sponsored the television broadcasts and the US track team, many viewers wrongly believed the company was an official sponsor.
Showpiece events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games are hugely expensive to put on. Organisers require rich brands to pump vast quantities of money into the events in return for exclusive advertising around them. Around £1.4 billion ($2.2 billion) of London 2012’s £11.4 billion ($18 billion) budget came from private sponsors.
For the ambushers, however, one moment of genius or one slip-up from the organisers can result in huge free exposure as the whole world watches on.
Social media intensified the threat of ambushing. London’s event was seen as the first ‘social media’ Games, with sites such as Twitter playing an increasingly integral part in the way information is distributed globally. Locog would have feared the onset of viral, flash mob ambushing, which may have been hard to pin down.
But to everyone’s surprise, there was next to no ambush marketing in London. “It’s amazing,” says Adam Rendle, associate at law firm Taylor Wessing.
Dan Smith, director at Wragge & Co in London, observes that “there hasn’t been a standout moment of ambush marketing as we have seen at other events in the past”.
The legislation—the strictest ever applied to the Olympics—gives us some insight into the minds of the marketers. The London Olympic Games and Paralympics Games Act 2006 prevented advertising and merchandise from using certain combinations of words, symbols and logos to create an unauthorised association with the Games. Words on the A-list included ‘Games’ and ‘Twenty Twelve’, while those on the B-list included ‘London’, ‘medals’ and ‘gold’.
“Locog also provided an interpretation of those rules in its guidance that took a relatively generous approach to the protection granted by the legislation,” says Rendle.
“The wording was very broad,” says Smith, and didn’t clearly define what was, and what wasn’t, acceptable. “The legislation could potentially have captured a huge range of activities—and you were left second-guessing where Locog would draw the line for the purposes of enforcement.”
This broad approach was part of a well thoughtout strategy, says Arthur Artinian, senior associate at Freshfields, the law firm that has advised Locog since London’s bid was approved in 2005. “It was intentional,” he says.
Artinian explains that this was just one part of an “incredibly large operation that involved significant planning and education. There was an extensive education campaign to build public awareness about the rules”.
Indeed, Rendle notes that Locog issued a large amount of guidance, well in advance of the Games, about what would happen to ambushers. “No-one could say with a straight face ‘we didn’t know about the rules’. Locog produced a 60-page document giving guidance, so it communicated well and committed lots of resources. You have the legislation there but if it is not communicated then it will not have the desired effect.”
While this planning went on behind the scenes, the efforts to protect sponsors were more visible on the ground. Almost 300 trading standards officers, hired by the publicly-funded Olympic Delivery Authority, meticulously patrolled 25 designated zones for ambushes.
Wearing purple caps and tops, they monitored advertising and street trading in a radius of up to 200 metres around Olympic venues. They had the power to strip down advertising and stop mass giveaways of items. There were even reports of police officers having to empty packets of crisps into plastic bags to avoid inadvertently advertising non-sponsors.
Aside from ambiguously-worded legislation and Locog’s robust approach to protecting sponsors, Rendle points to another reason for London 2012’s lack of ambushing. He says there was no shortage of criticism in the build-up to the Games, with some arguing the event had been spoiled by sponsors and become too commercial.
“I wonder if there was a sense that ‘well, let’s not try to ambush because if we do we will be criticised for turning the Games into a commercial enterprise’,” says Rendle. “‘If McDonald’s is being criticised over the consequences of its exclusivity then do we also want to be criticised for trying to obtain an advantage?’”
But if the audacious attempts of the past were absent, there was still a background ‘hum’ of adverts that were close to, or over, the line, says Smith. Looking back at some of the ads appearing around London, it is clear some brands were willing to take the chance that Locog’s broad interpretation of the law may backfire.
"Looking back at some of the ads appearing around London, it is clear some brands were willing to take the chance that Locog's broad interpretation of the law may backfire."
One of these was Yorkshire Tea’s use of the word ‘gold’ five times after athletes from the English county had won five gold medals. Another was Vodafone’s phrase ‘London’s calling’ against the backdrop of a Union Flag. “Vodafone’s taxi advertising did not create an association with the Games—it was an association with London as a whole and the campaign started well before the Games,” says Artinian.
How many cease and desist letters Locog sent is not public knowledge. But Artinian says “the majority” of incidents that caused Locog concern were dealt with “quickly and through cooperation”. “Much of the time there was no wrongful intention and, in general, there was a lot of consideration before taking action. There will always be examples on the periphery of what creates an association with the Games.”
Perhaps the most interesting ambushing strategies in London involved individual athletes. Previously, one of the most memorable such incidents was back in 1996, when British sprinter Linford Christie wore contact lenses emblazoned with the Puma logo to a press conference, despite Puma’s rival Reebok officially sponsoring the Atlanta Games. The huge publicity Puma achieved would of course be appealing to unofficial sponsors in London.
In theory, tough, critics say draconian, regulations prevented non-sponsors from using athletes in Olympics-related advertising and promotion. The Olympic Charter Rule 40, which stipulates that sanctions would fall on the individual athletes—who could be disqualified— came into effect from July 18 to August 15.
“There was a TV campaign by Subway before the sanctions window featuring various athletes talking about their ‘personal best’ Subway sandwich. That advertising was obviously associated with those athletes and then with the athlete’s sport, but it didn’t go any further and draw a more obvious association with the Olympics as a whole,” says Smith.
“It would have been difficult for Locog to pursue action against Subway if the campaign had continued after the blackout period kicked in. But they did stop running those ads because otherwise the athletes would have faced sanctions from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).”
Not all brands played by the rules during the blackout period. Beats Electronics (founded by US rapper Dr Dre) distributed its Beats by Dre headphones to numerous athletes, including British diver Tom Daley and Chinese swimmer Sun Yang. Adding to Locog’s worries, some athletes began tweeting to express their happiness at receiving the desirable headphones.
“The tweets were later removed and I think they probably told the athletes to remove the headphones. But it’s a good example of how something can slip through,” says Smith.
The controversial Rule 40 has angered individual athletes, in particular Sanya Richards-Ross, who won gold in the 400 metres in London. The rule prevents athletes who are sponsored by unofficial partners from earning what they see as their rightful rewards.
Following what appeared to be a coordinated protest on Twitter against Rule 40, using the hashtags #Rule 40 and #wedemandchange, Richards-Ross told a press conference that the rule was out of date. She said athletes should be compensated for their time in London, because so many of her peers “struggle in the sport”.
While these protests were more of a sideshow to the ambush marketing circus, they reinforced how airtight the rules have been. “I think Locog achieved what it wanted,” adds Smith, who says non-sponsors also managed to find a way of advertising around feelings of patriotism, using the Union Flag and linking to generic sport and feelings of celebration.
“For example, Marks & Spencer used ‘On your Marks for a summer to remember’—it was all about English summer parties and nodded at fun sport. You think of the Jubilee, the Euro 2012 football and other sports, but it wasn’t likely to expose them to action from the regulators.”
In preparation for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2018 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the authorities may wish to draw lessons from London. “The first lesson is that you must start educating people early and make it clear what the rules are. The success of Locog’s brand protection strategy was heavily dependent on that activity,” says Artinian.
“The approach to infringement does not have to be formal or heavy-handed: you can work collaboratively.” He notes that in the build-up to these future showpiece events, social media will present a continuing and evolving challenge for organisers.
“It’s an area that might need a more flexible approach as to what is, and what isn’t, allowed.” A combination of clear guidance and monitoring sites such as Twitter helped Locog to beat the ambushers on social media.
There were also reports, which Artinian cannot confirm, that Twitter agreed to block non-sponsors from buying advertising on the site during the Games. But it is clear that both on the social media and on many other platforms, ambush marketers have, in general, failed to outwit Locog. Brazil should take note, if it hasn’t already.
Olympic Games, ambush marketing, London 2012, LOCOG