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Non-Sponsor Brands Play Games With Winter Olympics

Posted by Barry Silverstein on January 29, 2010 10:10 AM

Sponsors flock to the Olympics because the games provide a worldwide platform for brand promotion. Implied in a sponsorship is a company's exclusivity in its brand category – and in the United States, that's something the US Olympic Committee vigorously defends.

Witness the current controversy surrounding the upcoming Winter Games. Television ads just released by Subway and Verizon Wireless feature references to the games – but neither advertiser is an official Olympic sponsor.

Subway's ad depicts athlete Michael Phelps swimming his way to what appears to be Vancouver, Canada, the site of the Winter Games. The Verizon Wireless ad shows two ice speed skaters and references a competition – the brand is the official sponsor of US Speedskating – but does not explicity refer to 2010 the Olympics.

The reaction from the US Olympic Committee has been swift and heated. The Committee is lambasting companies in general for using "ambush marketing practices" to make unauthorized use of the Winter Games. US Olympic Committee chief marketing officer Lisa Baird tells The Washington Post, "The fundamental issue is, we want to protect our sponsors' right, because it's only through the financial generosity of our sponsors and donors that our athletes can compete." Gerhard Heiberg, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee Marketing Commission, adds, "Ultimately, companies which try to create the false impression that they are an official partner of the Olympic Games, or create a false association with the Olympic Games, are cheating Olympic athletes."

Baird and Heiberg make a valid point. Many other nations' Olympic teams receive government funding, but the United States teams are funded exclusively by corporate and private support. As a result, commercial sponsorships provide a major revenue stream for US athletes. The Subway and Verizon Wireless ads are especially problematic because these companies compete directly with US Olympic team official sponsors, McDonald's (a Subway competitor) and AT&T (a Verizon Wireless competitor).

It remains to be seen if Subway and Verizon Wireless will pull back on their promotions. Verizon Wireless, for one, seems defiant; a spokesperson claimed its current ad supported the company's sponsorship of US Speedskating and the US Luge Association.

Still, the timing of the ad appears suspect, doesn't it?

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