Time to End Ambush Marketing

By Jim Andrews Aug 3, 2012

Time to End Ambush Marketing

A version of this post was published on the eve of the Games by Forbes.

As the London Olympic Games prepare to open, can we all agree to put the issue of ambush marketing to rest? Please.

I’m not suggesting a moratorium on the practice of what has—unfortunately—become known as ambush marketing, but simply ask that we stop making a big deal of it. For that matter, how about not making any size deal of it? Let’s just stop discussing it at all.

There are quite a few reasons to quit playing “spot the ambusher”—a game that has grown increasingly popular with each passing major sports event, be it the Super Bowl, World Cup or the Olympics.

Chief among them: Ambush marketing as a concept is deeply flawed. At its core, it is two (occasionally more) competitors vying to communicate similar messages through similar channels in similar places where each has a right to do so.

We don’t write articles or engage in long philosophical arguments about two car companies buying ad space during the broadcast of a popular show. No one raises an eyebrow when one airline cuts fares to gain an edge on particular routes. That’s just competition and smart marketing.

So is ambush marketing. One company opts to buy sponsorship rights while a competitor legitimately looks at its options to counteract that move. As long as it does not cross trademark and other legal boundaries—which no company of any consequence ever does—why should we care?

McDonald’s has worldwide sponsorship rights through the International Olympic Committee. Subway signs an endorsement deal with Olympian Michael Phelps. Why is this cause for debate? Certainly we can argue over which is the better strategy and who will ultimately get a better return on their investment. But why is Subway labeled an ambusher?

Is it because Subway is “ambushing” the Olympic Games, and not just McDonald’s, by running ads that suggest a connection to the event? Sorry, but any company signing a deal with an Olympic athlete, a national team or a single sport’s national governing  body, e.g., USA Gymnastics, is connected to the Games and has a right to market that connection so long as it stays within the legal lines.

But, you might argue, if companies can be identified with a major event without paying the sponsorship fee, it undermines the value of official partnerships and ultimately causes harm to the event. So isn’t that a reason to debate ambush marketing?

Not without evidence that the Olympic Games or any other event has been devalued by ambush marketing activity. The rights fees commanded by major sports properties have grown steadily at a rate far greater than inflation for the more than 25 years that ambush marketing has been around. The Olympics and soccer’s World Cup have grown so valuable in the last decade they are able to put their sponsorship opportunities out for bid, with prospective partners competing to come up with the best and biggest offer. McDonald’s—despite competitive activity in the Olympic space from the likes of Subway, Wendy’s and others—last winter re-signed as an IOC TOP sponsor through 2020.

In fact, if there is anyone that should want to end the debate over ambush marketing, it is the official sponsors themselves. In most, if not all, cases they are the ones who lose out in the court of public opinion.

While consumers may be avid fans of the Olympics, World Cup, NFL football, etc., they are well aware that the organizations behind their favorite events and sports have billions of dollars, as do the corporate sponsors, so the woe-is-us story line is not easily swallowed.

Nor have overly aggressive defensive tactics helped their cause. Did no one foresee the inevitable backlash that would come with banning French fries at the London Games in the name of protecting McDonald’s? Were fans supposed to sympathize more with FIFA and Anheuser-Busch than with the Dutch women who were thrown in jail for helping Bavaria beer pull off a publicity stunt at the 2010 World Cup?

In the latter case, making an issue of the ambush attempt served only to draw more attention to the competitor’s activity then Bavaria could ever have hoped to gain, and made those in need of protection look heavy-handed and foolish.

Trying to draft and enforce regulations that lock out any competitive activity is not only impossible, but diverts from what should be sponsors’ primary mission of developing creative ways to bring their partnerships to life. A big idea well communicated is an exponentially better defense of sponsorship rights than any language or action coming from a corporate attorney or an event’s commercial rights manager.

Sponsors and rightsholders should instead focus on their own marketing and activation efforts surrounding their major partnerships. Developing meaningful, relevant and authentic stories about their involvement will resonate with the people they are trying to influence.


London 2012 olympics ambush marketing


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Jim Andrews

About the Author

A 30-year sponsorship industry veteran, Jim is responsible for developing and sharing thought-leadership content based on ESP Properties’ groundbreaking work in the areas of sponsorship strategy, valuation, measurement, digital content, data-driven marketing and fan engagement.

In addition to identifying key trends and delivering his unique insights into the critical issues facing rightsholders and their commercial partners, Jim is the chairman of the Annual Sponsorship Conference, responsible for the program and speakers, as well as hosting and delivering the event’s opening address. He also is responsible for the company’s annual report and forecast of overall sponsorship spending, as well as its compilation of biggest spending companies and annual industry surveys.

A frequent media commentator and guest, Jim has been a featured speaker at hundreds of sports, entertainment and marketing conferences around the world.



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