The Olympics bring in top dollars from brand sponsorships—and those brands understandably want to protect their investments. This led to creation of Rule 40, which prohibits athletes from mentioning or pointing out in any way the sponsors not associated with the Games that were with them all along the way, helping them to get to the Games.
In addition to barring non-sponsors from using Olympian terms, Rule 40 also extends to generic phrases including “2016,” “effort,” “summer” and “performance” in the context of mentioning a brand’s sponsored athletes, as noted by Gulf News.
Naturally, athletes have long bridled at this ruling—even after it was somewhat relaxed last year in the run-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to allow non-Olympic sponsors and athletes to more time to engage in pre-Olympics PDA. And thanks to social media and sly hashtags, there are new ways for brands and athletes to get their names out there by associating themselves with the Games without actually mentioning them, a tactic that some call ambush marketing.
One brand in particular, sportswear maker Brooks Running Co., a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, has a pre-Rio 2016 campaign called Rule 40, which has its own website at rule40.com. One element of it dispatched a flatbed billboard truck to the US Track and Field Olympic Trials in July with such vaguely-worded signs such as “Good luck, you know who you are, on making it you know where” and “Not pictured here: an athlete living below the poverty line to bring glory to their country” for all to see, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Brooks, which sponsors a dozen Olympians in Rio, has been handing out anti-Rule 40 T-shirts and stickers as well as posting messages on social media, such as: “We can’t wish our athletes good luck, so thanks for cheering for them for us. #runhappy.”
Pretty much all athletes associated with the Olympics can’t mention their sponsors from nine days before the Olympics to three days after so the official window of silence has begun for the Games that kick off on August 5.
— Brooks Running (@brooksrunning) July 29, 2016
“I understand and I am empathetic to athletes and their individual deals and what they’re trying to do,” Whitney Wagoner, director of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, told Runner’s World. “But it is not a minor piece of this to protect the value of IOC rights. That money flows back to IOC member nations. That money flows back to local organizing committees so they can build the venues. It’s an important revenue stream for the entire ecosystem.”
While not overtly putting its brand name or logo on Rule40.com, the Brooks-backed website serves as a hub for all those looking to fight the rule. After all, if an athlete doesn’t follow the rule and thanks a non-sponsor during the blackout window, he or she could be punted right out of the Olympics by the IOC. Youch.
Of course, abiding by Rule 40 doesn’t stop athletes from complaining about it. Brent Lakatos, a Canadian wheelchair racer, noted the frustration with Rule 40 in his tweet, “First rule of the Olympics: you don’t talk about the Olympics.” A day before the July 27th blackout, American runner Emma Coburn thanked New Balance in a tweet, “#Rule40 starts tomorrow so I won’t be able to say Thank You to my sponsor. THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING #newbalance.”
— rule40 (@rule40) July 27, 2016
And there are ways of saying things without saying the actual words. British discus thrower Jade Lally posted good luck messages she received along with her commentary: “How amazing is this! It’s for that thing I’m doing this summer in South America.”
First rule of the Olympics: you don't talk about the Olympics. #Rule40
— Brent Lakatos (@BrentLak) July 27, 2016
— emma coburn (@emmajcoburn) July 26, 2016
— Jade Lally (@JadeLallyT69) July 27, 2016
It isn’t just mentions of the Olympics that athletes and brands need to avoid but “related words,” such as effort, performance, challenge, summer and, of course, gold, silver and bronze, GulfNews.com reports. And certainly don’t use #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA if you haven’t shelled out the bucks to do so!
— Ben י (@_BenCr) August 1, 2016