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Would past Olympics ambush marketing campaigns escape the London 2012 censors?

Much has been written about London 2012 organisers’ notoriously hard line on ambush marketing at this summer’s Olympics. But just how strict are these rules compared to previous Games?

Linford Christie's Puma contact lenses

We asked Adam Rendle, media lawyer at law firm Taylor Wessing, to pick out some of the most notable Olympics ambush marketing stunts from yesteryear and see how they would fare under LOCOG’s tough legislation.

In 1992, Nike sponsored Michael Jordan and the US basketball team and, much to the annoyance of Adidas (the official clothing sponsor), Jordan covered up the Adidas logo with an American flag during his medal ceremony.

Sponsorship of national sports teams is still possible but sponsors will have to be careful how they market that sponsorship in the UK, to ensure they do not create prohibited associations with the 2012 games or the Olympics.

Nike's rights to Jordan would be limited: the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from allowing their image to be used in any form of advertising during the games. This prohibition would also have caught Linford Christie in 1996 when he wore Puma branded contact lenses to a press conference when Reebok was the official sponsor.

However, it is hard to see on what grounds LOCOG could complain about the deliberate covering up of a logo; this is a form of "un-advertising" rather than the advertising which the UK legislation seeks to prevent.

During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when Reebok was the official sponsor, Nike bought up a significant proportion of the billboard space around the venues and built a Nike Village next to the athletes' village (which was under construction during the Olympics but displayed a very prominent Nike sign). Nike also handed out flags to spectators which had a far greater visual impact than Reebok’s footwear.

This kind of activity is now prohibited by "clean venue" regulations, which seek to ensure that no unofficial advertising appears on or around the field of play or is seen by TV cameras. This does not prevent takeovers of other properties in London away from the venues, such as buses, boats or taxis.

LOCOG had reserved the advertising space around the Olympic venues for the official sponsors. But, following slow uptake, it has recently been reported that non-sponsors have bought the majority of the space. However, no competitors of the official sponsors could bid (ruling out Nike’s approach) so, while non-sponsors can benefit from increased exposure, it does not pose a risk for competitor ambushing.

The tickets to the games contain restrictions on what spectators can take into the Olympic venues; for example "objects bearing trademarks or other kinds or promotional signs or messages (such as hats, T-shirts, bags, etc) which LOCOG believes are for promotional purposes" are prohibited. This may catch branded giveaways which might be intended for spectator use in venues such as sun visors (hopefully) or ponchos (hopefully not).

The official Olympic airline (Ansett Air) was a victim of ambush marketing the 2000 Sydney games, when Qantas used the tagline "the spirit of Australia" which was arguably reminiscent of the Sydney Olympic slogan "Share the Spirit". This led to many consumers believing that Qantas was the official sponsor.

This kind of allusive activity is on the boundaries of what might be prohibited. There was no direct connection to the 2000 Olympics; the tagline may just have been an expression of corporate patriotism in a big year for Australian athletes.

On the other hand, the intention of the advertising seems to be to refer to the Olympics, for example with the use of “spirit”. It is examples like these that would test the "association right" to its limits but we are still waiting for a court case to give some much needed guidance (as, at present, we only have LOCOG’s view of what is acceptable).

The 2012 restrictions are therefore much more robust than those seen at previous Olympics and have been designed with ambushers' past behaviour in mind.

The past is, as we are commonly told, no predictor of the future and this truism is apt here. London 2012 will be the first truly digital and social media Olympics, presenting unprecedented opportunities for intentional and accidental ambush marketing to go viral.

We may also see location based marketing used, which seems to benefit from an exception to the clean venue regulations, provided it does not breach the “association” prohibitions.

The games have had a bad run of press recently, with security and transport failings making the headlines. It will be intriguing to see whether ambush marketing (and responses to it) join them.

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Adam Rendle

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