Sochi Olympics on lookout for ambush marketing

The International Olympics Committee rapped the knuckles of one "ambush" advertiser who is not an official sponsor. But as marketing guru Terry O'Reilly of CBC Radio's "Under the Influence" says, consumers view the one-upmanship as just another spectator sport.

IOC up in arms, but fans look at rival's sneaky ads as a spectator sport

A woman looks out from behind Olympic-themed souvenirs on display at the central market in Adler, near Sochi. Some of them may even be official. (Alexander Demianchuk / Russia)

When an advertiser shows up unannounced and steals attention by aligning itself with an event or a competitor's ad, it's called "ambush marketing."

It's a high-wire act, requiring the element of surprise, brash timing, cleverness, and just a dash of larceny.

One type of ambush is "marketing by unauthorized association." That's when one brand has paid big dollars to be the exclusive sponsor of an event, like, say, the Olympics, and a competing brand cleverly attempts to become connected to that event without paying the sponsorship fee.

Many regulations have been brought into place to discourage ambush tactics, and in the case of big events like the Olympics and the World Cup, the penalties can involve the law.

At the 2010 World Cup, for example, Budweiser was the official beer, but a Dutch brewery hired 36 young women to sit in the stands during one of the big matches wearing bright orange miniskirts.

Orange was the corporate colour of the Dutch beer. And FIFA, the overseeing body for international soccer, filed a civil case against the brewery, and criminal charges against two Dutch women who organized the stunt.

It's interesting to note the miniskirts bore no logos, and FIFA later dropped the charges.

Nike strikes

In the case of the Olympics, Nike had long avoided sponsoring a big event like that, in part so it probably wouldn't expose itself to its own kind of ambush tactics, like it does when it sponsors individual teams and athletes.

The lady with the yellow shoes (Canadian hurdler Jessica Zelinka)? Continuing an attention-getting Olympic tradition, Nike's fluorescent yellow shoes turned heads at the London Olympics in 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

The full ambush strategy Nike employed during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta stands as the most famous of all time.

For the 1996 Games, rival Reebok paid $50 million to be an official sponsor, while NIKE saved the $50-million fee and decided to ambush the Games instead.

Its tactic was to buy up almost every available billboard in Atlanta and plaster them with its logos.

It also ran extremely creative and highly visible television commercials featuring top Olympic athletes, which Nike had under contract, like U.S. sprinter Carl Lewis.

Nike also handed out thousands of swoosh flags featuring its logo to spectators to wave in the stadiums.

And to top it off — it built an enormous "Nike Centre" next to the Olympic Village, overlooking the stadium, and providing facilities for both athletes and fans.

The man with the golden shoes

Nike managed one other remarkable coup in Atlanta. American sprinter Michael Johnson became known, not just as the first male runner to win gold medals in both the 200 and 400 metre races, but as "The man with the golden shoes."

In spite of Reebok's $50-million official sponsorship, those gold shoes with the big Nike swoosh dominated the world press.

When television audiences were later asked to recall the names of official sponsors, 22 per cent cited Nike, and only 16 per cent said Reebok.

Nike's historic ambush of the 1996 Games led the International Olympic Committee to implement vast anti-ambush regulations.

The Olympics relies on multi-million dollar official sponsors — the top tier paying $100 million or more for an Olympic cycle — and the IOC doesn't want them spooked by ambush brands.

But the whole field of ambush marketing is definitely a spectator sport.

When FIFA and the IOC voice their outrage, it's interesting to note that fans don't really share the moral indignation.

They watch with a bemused detachment, and are often entertained by the bold one-upmanship.

For example, in the run-up to the Sochi Games, the Olympic torch extinguished unexpectedly on one occasion as it was being paraded through Russia. So someone stepped forward and re-lit it using a Zippo lighter.

The very next day, Zippo posted on its Facebook page and tweeted: "Zippo saves the Olympics!"

The IOC came down hard. Zippo was forced to cease and desist, but then it changed its Facebook page to say, "Zippo. Perfect for all winter games. Wink, wink."

And that's the key ingredient in ambush marketing: it's one part ingenious, one part good timing, one part light robbery, and two parts wink-wink.

But it's always contentious because it's a surprise attack by a brand that shows up and crashes the party — hoping to attract even more attention than if it had RSVP'd.


Terry O'Reilly

Host 'Under the Influence'

The award-wining host of the radio series "The age of persuasion," Terry O'Reilly has been in the advertising and marketing business for over 30 years, and worked in some of the most creative shops in Canada. His new series is called "Under the influence," and can be heard on CBC Radio One.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?