Olympic Sponsors Wary Of Flag-Waving Themes

With the Summer Olympics in Athens barely a month away, advertisers, athletes, NBC and the U.S. Olympic Committee are still trying to resolve concerns over drugs, security and global politics. And with relations between the U.S. and much of the world strained, sponsors of the Games are changing their tune this time around, tempering their patriotic tones.

Marketing efforts this year favor a more unifying and less controversial theme: rallying behind American athletes.

“The Olympics are popular all over the world because they evoke a sense of patriotism among consumers and viewers within certain countries,” said John Osborn, president and CEO of BBDO, New York, whose Visa client is the official credit card of the Games. “However, in many instances, the communications around that don’t have to overtly deal with winning or beating other countries. More often than not, that sense of spirit and pride is reflected by athletes, who are reaching from within to perform their absolute best. That is a spirit that is very rich in connective tissue to brands.”

Many of the clients who will dominate Olympics broadcasts in the U.S. have major investments worldwide, including Anheuser-Busch, Visa, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Xerox. (Worldwide rights cost as much as $50 million.) So, even during an Olympic year, analysts say, a jingoistic approach would be counterproductive.

“Companies that avoid the us-versus-the-world attitude will not only avoid controversy but will also be more successful in promoting world unity,” said Peter Stern, president of Strategic Sports Group in New York, “which is, after all, what the Olympics are about.”

But some marketers noted that avoiding patriotism altogether would defeat the purpose of an Olympic sponsorship. “Patriotism has always been a key ingredient in the Olympic-sponsorship formula,” said Mary Goggans, associate marketing director at Kimberly-Clark’s Kleenex brand, which backs several Olympic-related programs and is an associate sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. “It’s an emotion unique to the Olympic Games that sponsors can count on when establishing a positive, meaningful connection with consumers. It’s what makes Olympic-related marketing so attractive.”

A secure strategy for U.S. companies has always been to sponsor American athletes, then feature them in marketing. Olympic-bound Kerri Walsh and Misty May from the U.S. women’s volleyball team starred in a Visa ad from BBDO, New York, that broke on the Super Bowl. Members of the U.S. synchronized-swim team appear in an Aflac spot created by The Kaplan Thaler Group, New York, while swimmer Michael Phelps is featured in spots for Visa and print ads for Speedo (handled in-house) and Argent Mortgage, created by Revolution in Chicago.

Among others, 24 Hour Fitness is touting its Olympic sponsorship and Team 24 Hour Fitness via two spots that broke last month and a third debuting this month via Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco. Online job site Monster will leverage its USOC sponsorship, featuring its Team Monster—comprising athletes from five different Olympic sports—in ads created by Deutsch, New York. The Home Depot has touted its Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which provides athletes with jobs while they train, in TV spots from The Richards Group in Dallas.

Perhaps the most patriotic Olympic-themed ads are sponsored by the USOC itself, via GSD&M in Austin, Texas. The committee has aired several TV spots that flaunt the flag and feature the “U-S-A” chant and the national anthem. Text reads, “For 17 days in August, we all have the same favorite song.”

Olympics broadcaster NBC is taking a lighter tack. Signage on traditional Greek-image-style takeout coffee cups has been altered to feature the network’s own Athens Olympics logo and the copy, “24 hours a day, Aug. 13-19 on the networks of NBC.”

Whatever the tone, most sponsors plan massive media buys. General Motors, for example, will run more than 160 Chevrolet spots during the Olympics. Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich., is launching the third phase of the marketer’s “An American Revolution” campaign during the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies.

Whether consumers will remember the athletes and the ads is another matter. “Post-Olympic consumer retention and recall is quite low, particularly with respect to sponsors,” noted Professor Richard Irwin, director of the Bureau of Sport and Leisure Commerce at the University of Memphis. “That is why concurrent themed campaigns, typically retail, are most effective. Otherwise, the Olympic sponsorship serves as more an image enhancement than anything else.”