10 Ways Brands Are Talking About the Olympics Without Saying ‘Olympics’

And one company that's suing the USOC

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If you're not an official Olympic sponsor brand, talking about the Olympics on social media during the games can be a minefield thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee's strict intellectual property rules. Some brands have managed to leverage the enthusiasm of the games without breaking the rules, however. Here's how they're doing it:

Getting USOC waivers prior to the games. In 2015, the IOC and USOC announced changes to sponsorship rule 40 that allow athletes to appear in generic advertising that does not explicitly mention the games or use any Olympics intellectual property. To take advantage of those changes, U.S. athletes and nonsponsors had to submit waivers to the USOC by Jan. 27, 2016, and those ads had to have been in market by March 27. Examples of such campaigns are Under Armour's "Rule Yourself" spots with Michael Phelps and GoPro's digital video series, "Finding Missy," with Missy Franklin.

Using themes related to fandom and athletes. Ford's campaign for its 2017 Ford Escape SUV, "We are All Fans," includes TV and Snapchat ads that don't use any banned terminology but still allude to the Olympics. The ads show a guy performing a pommel horse routine on top of his Ford Escape, and a weightlifter loading boxes into the back of her SUV. "The keywords we were brainstorming were 'fit,' 'active,' 'strong,' 'human' and 'smart,'" Kellee Montgomery, Ford's social marketing manager, told Adweek.


Launching Olympics-themed contests. To promote the removal of artificial flavors and colors from its cereals, General Mills launched the Rabbit Showdown, a campaign that's a tribute to the famous Trix rabbit. The Rabbit Showdown video and tweets feature rabbits performing Olympic sports like gymnastics, track and field, and diving, and invite fans to submit videos of their pet rabbits' "amazing athletic talents."

Crafting animated videos. Google's 2016 Doodle Fruit Games show animated fruits participating in Olympic events.

Creating their own hashtags. Since nonsponsors are banned from using hashtags that include Olympics trademarks, Oiselle, an athletic apparel company that sponsors Olympic hopefuls but is not an official sponsor, uses #TheBigEvent to refer to the games. In one of its blog posts, the company referred to the Olympics as the "South American rodeo."


Crafting clever Tumblr posts. Like this table tennis-themed one, from Totino's (no Olympics IP here).

Using individual influencers. On Wednesday, Previnex, a nutritional supplement company that sponsors five Olympic athletes but is not an official sponsor, is doing an Instagram takeover with Kristin Hildebrand, a U.S. pro volleyball player not on the Olympic team, who will post behind-the-scenes looks at the games from Rio. Previnex also is using other individuals, who are free to tweet about the Olympics, to post about the games on its behalf. 

Focusing on patriotism. On Aug. 13, Ford will launch a sponsored Snapchat lens that lets users paint their faces red, white and blue, and activate a confetti shower in their snaps.

Developing content on the fly during the games' most talked about moments. Ford and Previnex will both do so. "If anything happens in the moment that we can leverage, we have our designers on hand and ready to go. It goes back to what happened with [Oreo's "you can still dunk in the dark" tweet] during the Super Bowl a few years ago. It's about getting creative and leveraging the moment," said Brian Gleason, vp of marketing at Previnex.

Waiting until after the Olympics to post Olympics footage. After the USOC's blackout period ends on Aug. 24, any content is fair game, so Previnex will post videos using Olympics footage and the athletes it sponsors in a post-games wrap-up.

On the other hand, one brand is taking legal action against the USOC. On Aug. 4, a carpet cleaning company, Zerorez of Minnesota, filed a lawsuit against the USOC for the right to talk about the Olympics on social media. Aaron Hall, JUX Law Firm CEO and head attorney on the case, says the USOC's rules are going beyond the trademark protection laws afforded them by U.S. Code Chapter 2205.

"We believe [the USOC] has gone way beyond the authority the statute gives them. We're asking the courts to clarify that the statute doesn't allow them to prohibit businesses from certain types of speech," Hall said. "Many have said the Olympic committee is using trademark law to bully small businesses, and it's greatly overreaching."

Zerorez wants the ability to retweet Olympics-related posts and congratulate local Olympians during future games. For now, the company will avoid talking about the Olympics altogether, said co-founder Michael Kaplan. "We're going to stay out of it and hopefully get some clarity about how to move forward [on what we can say]. There are 11 great athletes from Minnesota, and we'd love to give them a high five," he said. "We're really concerned about the overreach and the encroachment of drawing boundaries on social media, and we'd really like to be a part of the Olympics conversation."

@ChristineBirkne christine.birkner@adweek.com Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.