Rio 2016: Rule 40 Changes Shake Up Olympic Athletes and Sponsors


Under Armour Michael Phelps Rule Yourself Rio 2016 Olympics

Olympic athletes generally only have a short window of time when the world pays any attention to them, but it takes years of hard work, energy and focus to get to the Games, no matter how well they do once they get there and compete—as more than 10,000 athletes will do, in the first edition of the Olympic Games to be held in South America, from Aug. 5-21.

Behind them, of course, is an Olympic Village-worth of other people who have spent their time, energy and money to make the dream a reality. Oftentimes that funding comes from sponsorships, but athletes traditionally have had to forget the companies that helped them get to the Games each time the Olympics rolled around for fear of riling the official sponsors of the Games.

Not just fear, in fact—the Olympics has banned the logos and branding of non-sponsors in a bid to protect those companies that paid to play in the Games. The logic: why see a logo that didn’t pay millions of dollars flash across the TV screen on the back of the darling of that quadrennial’s Games?

The branding clampdown has angered athletes and their sponsors, and inspired the likes of Nike to invest in so-called ambush marketing around the world’s largest international athletic showcase. That’s fine if you’re a Nike, but athletes didn’t have much recourse and risked fines for parading their sponsors. Until this year.

Sponsors and athletes could trumpet their union in the days leading up to and during the Rio 2016 Games thanks to a critical change to Rule 40 of the International Olympic Charter that was announced in February 2015, relaxing the rules for athletes’ endorsement guidelines, including social media marketing:

While evaluating Rule 40 in the lead-up to the Rio Games, the International Olympic Committee and USOC sought potential ways to further protect athletes’ rights. The changes to the guidance were made with athlete input in mind as a way to help athletes potentially generate additional financial support as they chase their Olympic dreams…

Athletes and other Games participants will benefit from the new guidance as they will no longer be required to disrupt on-going in-market advertising campaigns during the Rule 40 period. The guidelines also protect USOC sponsors’ exclusive rights to use Olympic marks, terminology and imagery.

The guidelines stipulate that, in order to obtain a Rule 40 waiver from the USOC, campaigns must run continuously starting no later than March 27, 2016. As has been the case, campaigns submitted for review may not include direct or indirect association with the Rio Games, the USOC, Team USA, Olympic intellectual property or terms generally associated with the Olympic Games.

As defined by the IOC, the Rule 40 period for the 2016 Olympic Games is July 27-Aug. 24, 2016 (nine days prior to the Opening Ceremony through three days after the Closing Ceremony).

In essence, the IOC permitted brands that aren’t official sponsors (which can cost $25 million a year) to take advantage of “an opportunity to compose advertising campaigns tailored to Olympic athletes — so long as they did not include any Olympic symbols or overtly mention certain terms” such as “Rio,” “gold” or “summer,” according to the New York Times. That window closed on March 27th, and the Rule 40 non-sponsor-blackout will kick in on July 27th.

Companies wanting to take part for this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro had to apply for a waiver by this past January and start running the campaign in March, a gauntlet that taken up by Under Armour, which sponsors 250 Olympic athletes including Michael Phelps, with the spot (above) winning at the recent Cannes Lions awards.

Under Rule 40 during London 2012, for example, Virgin Media pulled ads (such as the one above) featuring Usain Bolt promoting its broadband to avoid them appearing during the blackout period. Virgin’s new TV pays tribute to Bolt as the world’s fastest man looks to make history at the Olympic Games in Rio. The 100-second TV ad, narrated by fellow sprinter Michael Johnson, uses a series of sequences that are 9.58 seconds long – the world record 100m time Bolt set in 2009.

Phelps also found himself swimming in hot water during London 2012, Sports Business Daily notes, “when unauthorized images of him that were part of an ad campaign by Louis Vuitton were leaked during the blackout period, risking possible violation of Rule 40” and the loss of the six medals he won at that summer’s Olympic Games. He didn’t lose the medals or get fined, in the end, but but the uproar did highlight the restrictions on athletes.

Michael Phelps Louis Vuitton 2012 Olympics London ad

Michael Phelps Louis Vuitton London 2012 Olympics ad

As Phelps’ agent pointed out at the time, “the key issue with Rule 40 is whether the athlete permitted the use of his image during the blackout period — which clearly Phelps did not.” Other athletes, however, protested the Rule 40 restrictions at the 2012 Olympics in London with the hashtag #WeDemandChange2012.

Fast-forward four years, and Phelps and his sponsors at Under Armour were thrilled to engage in some Olympic marketing around UA’s Rule Yourself campaign—which, in this case, could expand to Rule 40 Yourself.

“The Olympics provide a unique platform for our brand to engage a global audience, and the changes to Rule 40 allow us to fulfill our number one objective: to support the nearly 250 Olympic athletes and hopefuls tied to the brand during the Games,” said Peter Murray, Under Armour’s VP of Global Sports Marketing, to Inc.

Other non-sponsors taking advantage of the Rule 40 openness around Rio 2016 include Red Bull (which recently bought a stake in GoPro); PepsiCo’s Gatorade; and General Mills, whose Honey Nut Cheerios cereal boxes feature Olympians such as French Canadian swimmer Katerine Savard.

It’s all, understandably, a bit confusing for consumers—but do they care whether Olympic athletes have official or unofficial sponsors’ logos on their apparel and gear? “Exclusive sponsors will keep hyping the logos to signify that there is a sponsorship relationship that they paid for,” John Grady, associate professor of sports law at the University of South Carolina, told the Times. “But as the space gets cluttered with more and more brands, consumers are less able to identify who is who.”

Even more perturbed than consumers, consider the official Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Atos, Bridgestone, Dow, Omega, Visa, P&GPanasonicGE, Samsung, NissanCisco and McDonald’s, who have paid millions for category-exclusive sponsorships and have now seen rivals cutting into their multimillion-dollar plans and deals.

McDonald’s, for its part, told Reuters it plans to work with media monitoring agencies to flag unofficial sponsors violating the terms of the deal. “If we find Rule 40 impacts the value of our sponsorship, we could always go back and renegotiate for the future,” a spokesman told Reuters. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re all happy about it.”

Nike 2016 Team USA Olympics podium apparel

Back to the Nike example, the home of the swoosh has been associating itself with the Games without being an official sponsor for years, including sponsoring Team USA and outfitting American athletes with high-tech gear and podium attire said to fight off not only competitors but even (Zika-carrying) mosquitoes.

During the London 2012 Games, its “Find Your Greatness” advertising campaign was so effective in striking a chord with the public that it was named by consumers as the No. 1 brand associated with the Olympics, even though it wasn’t a sponsor.

This, of course, raises the question of what’s the value of an official sponsorship for brands. Does it effectively only buy product placement in one of the world’s biggest sporting events? Some are not concerned, particularly those that have locked up premium TV ad time along with their Olympic sponsorship.

“We believe in the power of the Olympic rings, and we believe in our exclusive buy with NBC, which is where the majority of the eyeballs will be,” Tina R. Davis, the head of sponsorships and marketing at Citigroup, which is running at #StandForProgress campaign, told the Times. “So we’re not concerned with any other brand being able to co-opt us.”

Still, not all challenger brands are thrilled. Sally Bergesen, the founder and CEO of women’s premium running apparel brand Oiselle, sponsors 15 Olympic hopefuls but feels the new rules are “a joke.” The video below, for example, was “edited for USOC compliance” and h”ighlights 18 of our Haute Volée athletes competing in the Trials 2016 in Los Angeles.”

“The relaxed Rule 40 is a joke,” Bergesen told Adweek. “You had to have submitted your campaign in January, before anybody’s qualified for anything. Then, you need to start running your campaign in March, so you don’t get any timing benefit with the Olympics. For small businesses, running an ad campaign from March through August is really expensive.”

Rio 2016 has been having problems convincing athletes, fans, and dignitaries that these games are worth coming to. Too many news reports keep popping up of the dreaded Zika virus, violence, and unrest in Brazil to make anyone feel too comfortable. That may be why the Olympics just signed its first-ever insect-repellent partner, SC Johnson’s OFF! brand. Thousands of bottles will be distributed to athletes, staff and volunteers as part of the agreement.

While the Rio Games are still 30 days away, the tracking of Olympics-oriented campaigns has already begun. P&G, which created the most-shared Olympic ad of all time for the 2012 Games with its tear-jerking mom-inspired “Best Job” commercial is already competing with this year’s “Thank You Mom” offering below, “Strong,” which touches on the same themes and heartstrings. Along those lines, the “Raising an Olympian” web series pays tribute to the village behind every athlete (watch below).

Meanwhile, not all athletes are thrilled with Rule 40—or the changes. As Sports Illustrated writes in a story about an athlete protest involving black tape led by runner Nick Symmonds, who we wrote about in 2012, he’s still protesting—and offering his shoulder to brands’ seeking some human ad space—although an ankle injury means he couldn’t qualify or compete in Rio. His beef: athletes can’t sport more than one sponsor’s logo during the Games:

Symmonds’s movement, which he has branded as #OwnYourSkin, has called for athletes to wear black tape on their shoulder in solidarity. Symmonds and other volunteers will also offer tape and stickers to the estimated 24,000 fans expected to be in attendance who want to show their support. 

“Here we are four years later and not much has changed. USATF, USOC and the IOC are still stealing the money available and paying the athletes next to nothing for the trials and absolutely nothing from the games,” Symmonds says. “I have never made a single dollar from the Olympic Games and whether you’re Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt or a random athlete that you’ve never heard of, they all make the exact same—zero dollars.”
The USOC responded that medalists are paid $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze at the Olympics. Symmonds has never medaled at the Games.

While he had to sit out the Team USA trials, he’s still speaking out, as KTVB reported:

The current rules only allow athletes to wear one sponsorship logo on their uniform using competition this week, when most could sell many more. Symmonds, who recently started a new company call Run Gum, has a tent set up in the Fan Fest area at Hayward Field. He is asking athletes, fans and sponsors to come together – against the powers that be in his profession – by using black tape to mask unauthorized sponsors.

“I had four temporary tattoos that I had sold to T-Mobile, Run Gum, Hansen Creative and Zappos, and I was going to walk out with black tape all over my arm, and I think it would’ve been a great talking point,” Symmonds said.

Below, some of P&G’s Rio 2016 advertising: