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Olympic Brand Ambush Marketing is...(A) a Mortal Sin (B) Good Business Sense (C) None of the Above

If ambush marketing is as mortal a sin as the IOC claims, why did they bring on board as an Olympic sponsor one of the most infamous ambush marketers of all time?

During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, NIKE, which at the time was NOT an Olympic sponsor, heavily promoted, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold” in reference to what they perceived as the greed of the IOC to cater primarily to elite athletes and ignore all the rest who were only one one-hundredth of a second off the center podium. The IOC was livid and accused NIKE of unfair sportsmanship, which is ironic when you consider it was exactly what NIKE implied of the IOC.

According to the IOC, ambush marketing is illegal and unethical.

Surprisingly, in 2005 the IOC made NIKE an Olympic sponsor.

Maybe ambush marketing isn’t such a sin after all.

The reality is that what the IOC refers to as ambush marketing (or as I prefer to call it, leveraging Olympic momentum) is neither against any law in any Olympic host region anywhere in the world ... or is it dishonourable. A growing group of mostly large companies do it regularly and with great success. Some business executives maintain, and rightly so, independently leveraging Olympic momentum improves the IOC business model by keeping Olympic organizations on their toes.

Business owners and Canadian lawyers are pretty clear in the interpretation. The more progressive believe ambush marketing / leveraging Olympic momentum makes good business sense.

Quote from Nancy A. Miller, lawyer with Folger Rubinoff; "There is no unanimity of view that the practice of ambush marketing is an unfair and unethical marketing tactic rather than a creative, effective and legal marketing practice."

How did it happen then that many business owners in Vancouver and Whistler still shiver in their boots at even the prospect of trying to figure out how to get on the gravy train Olympic sponsors selfishly ride? I write "selfishly" because Olympic sponsors like NBC and their CTV 2010 affiliates for example expect to connect with over three billion viewers at the Vancouver / Whistler Winter Games, and the plan is to keep it all to themselves. It’s a lot of eyeballs and a lot of advertising dollars. While sponsors line up at the bank to deposit wheelbarrows of Olympic gold, taxes skyrocket and the cost of doing business in our host region escalates. Since 2002, Olympic host regions have been stuck with a deficit and ROI that wasn’t even remotely proportionate to the billions spent. And unless a miracle occurs, Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 will experience the same economic straits.  

How does the IOC get away with it in host region after host region?

I’ll let you in on a little secret, they use intimidation to keep the host community in its place, or more accurately, their place.

They hit hard in the early years when a region first wins the bid to send a strong message they will not tolerate any type of interference in their oligopolic monopoly (an oligopoly occurs when a market is surreptitiously controlled by a small number of industries).

The Olympia restaurant on Denman street is a good example of the IOC hitting hard right out of the gate. Instead of the IOC approaching the restaurant owners rationally about the rings and torch imagery they used for almost two decades on their restaurant signs and menus, Olympic organizations in 2004 sent threatening letters out of the blue with the intent, we assume, to intimidate the restaurant into submission.

Fortunately for the restaurant, the Olympia had the full and very vocal support of the community behind them, plus an experienced media communications company (mine) and a legal heavyweight, Joe Arvay, to help them interpret the law.

Most people today think the problem regarding the Olympia restaurant was resolved years ago, but it wasn’t. The only thing resolved was that after a few years of harassment VANOC let the issue quietly slip into the night after they realised they were wrestling with an eight arm social media octopus.

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