Slow Burn

As inspirational marketing symbols go, the Olympic torch is a doozy.

In an age of electronic blips and bleeps, faxes, cell phones and other wireless wonders, here is an actual flame, handed from one live human being to another. If you ignore those oversized white-and-blue sports outfits, the ritual links us to the ancient Greeks, honors those who carry it and drums up excitement for the Games. No wonder people turn out in droves to cheer.

So why would you go and muck it up with greed?

Maybe because marketers and Olympic organizers can’t help themselves. Most of the torchbearers are winners of a well-publicized contest that measures spirit in overcoming adversity or inspiring others to greatness. But 4,300 of the 11,500 carriers were picked by sponsors Coca-Cola, Chevrolet and the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, according to reports in The Wall Street Journal. You don’t hear the Winter Olympics publicity engine trumpeting that fact.

That’s why, when you bring little Sarah out to watch the torch being carried down Main Street, you may see the local Chevy dealer or a General Motors executive or a Coke employee carrying it. There’s also a good chance the torch holder will turn down a side street and stop at a Chevy dealership for a few minutes.

If the whole experience leaves a bad taste in your mouth, that’s understandable. The sponsor companies, who kicked in $8-10 million a piece to pay for the cross-country relay, are allowed to use the torch as a promotional tool. And they do.

What’s next? The sponsors’ logos on the torch itself? Wait, we’re almost there. The American flags held by cheering bystanders at a stop in Michigan had Chevy logos on them.

The lack of chest-pounding about the Coke and Chevy torchbearers suggests the people involved know this isn’t a boon for the Olympic mystique. The idea seems to be to take the sponsors’ money and try to keep their participation a secret. Bad call. Stealth is a lousy marketing strategy.

It really is a pity. These Winter Olympics are already notorious for problems with fraud and bribery. In general, viewers are getting increasingly agitated by the overcommercialization of the Games and the athletes. This is a year when we could really use some greed-free international cooperation.

Since the Olympic committee seems incapable of protecting the honesty and integrity of its event, maybe it is up to marketers and agencies to exert some restraint. A few simple rules: Don’t agree to con your loyal customer base. Don’t try to slide in sales performers with real heroes.

Let’s assume the Olympics still have some sense of purity. It’s not yet like the Super Bowl, which is starting look refreshingly honest in its unabashed celebration of commercialism. Stunts like taking the Olympic torch to Chevy dealerships just make Chevrolet and the other sponsors look desperate.

Ironically, it’s a perception for which they’ve paid handsomely.