Olympic advertising: 5 ways to brand-crash the 2012 Games

Organizers are going to extreme lengths to lock down Olympic-related ads, but sneaky ambush marketers always find a way.

No matter what athletic feats occur at the 2012 London Games, one record has already been broken. Brands have paid an unprecedented $957 million on official Olympic sponsorships, and the International Olympic Committee is determined to protect that revenue stream by keeping rivals out.

The IOC is taking brand-policing at the London Games even further than it did at Beijing in 2008, with parliamentary legislation granting special protection to the Games and its sponsors. There are so-called brand exclusion zones of up to one kilometre in diameter around each of the 34 Olympic venues, inside of which only official sponsors can advertise. Even logos on hand dryers and toilets in stadium washrooms are being covered up by roving brand police. Outside of the zones, non-sponsors are forbidden from using any Olympic-tinged words like “games,” “2012,” “gold,” and others. Violators face stiff fines or even criminal charges.

Still, ambush marketers are finding ever sneakier ways to get their message out to a worldwide audience—without having to spend hundreds of millions in sponsorship fees. (See “An exercise in Olympic vanity,” page 15.) Here are just some of the ways you can crash the world’s biggest marketing opportunity.


Get consumers in on the joke by just barely skirting overt Olympic association. Lululemon did it for Vancouver 2010 with its “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011” line. Marks & Spencer is cutting it close this summer with its “On Your Marks” campaign featuring egg spoon races, lawn tennis, plenty of Union Jacks and the strategically vague tag line “a summer to remember.” British ad insiders say rival brands are jockeying to secure ad placements just outside the zones and are actively looking for other loopholes in the rules.


The web will be where the bulk of brand-based ballyhoo happens, since it will be hardest to police. Still, Twitter has already agreed to block non-sponsors from buying promoted ads with hashtags like #London2012, and organizers have created a private website for athletes to report any ambush-like activities. World Cup 2010 non-sponsors Nike and Pepsi have proven a well-executed viral campaign can rival or surpass the reach of official sponsorship. Nike’s Make It Count campaign has been so effective that a recent poll found a majority of Twitter users think Nike, not Adidas, is the official sponsor.


The most straightforward way around official Olympic sponsorship is to go directly to the source and sponsor an individual athlete. Puma is the longtime sponsor of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, perhaps the single most recognizable Games participant. By attaching itself to the world’s fastest man, and outfitting him in buzz-worthy Bob Marley–inspired gear, Puma is prying eyeballs away from official sponsor Adidas. And if Bolt wins, you can be sure he’ll be decked out in Puma gear on the podium. Chinese entrepreneur and former Olympian Li Ning pulled the most visible ambush of all at the 2008 opening ceremonies, where he lit the Olympic torch decked out head-to-toe in his own athletic clothing brand—while Adidas execs helplessly fumed from the VIP seats.


It’s a high-risk move that can win millions in media exposure. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the official beer sponsor was Budweiser, Dutch beer Bavaria sent 36 women dressed in short orange dresses—no visible logos—to a game where they garnered significant TV camera time. Still, FIFA ejected the women from the game and had them temporarily arrested. Four years before, Bavaria sold branded orange lederhosen to Dutch fans at the 2006 World Cup. But FIFA confiscated them at the gates, sending more than 1,000 fans to their seats in their underwear. Both incidents caused a sensation and were reported around the world—along with Bavaria’s brand name.


Time to get creative. The brand exclusion zone even extends two metres on either side of the marathon and cycling routes. One London bistro called the Café Olympic made headlines for its deliberately ham-fisted attempt at compliance, losing the O to become Café Lympic. Giving free samples or swag to spectators headed into the zone can bypass the brand police and help spread the word.

Illustrations by Josh McKible