In just under a month, the eyes and the brands of the world will watch as athletes compete for gold in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Well, at least the top brands like McDonald’s and Visa (think Morgan Freeman narrating dramatic black-and-white ads) who pay millions of dollars to officially sponsor the Olympics will be watching athletes compete for the gold in Rio. Companies that aren’t official sponsors will be watching as athletes compete for shiny metal awards during an international quadrennial sporting event in Brazil, thanks to a strange rule that bans them from using key Olympic terms in any of their marketing.
Previously, under the International Olympic Committee’s rule, nonofficial sponsors were not allowed to use Olympic athletes in their ads, even if they had preexisting deals with the athletes. On the flip side, athletes weren’t allowed to tweet about any sponsor that wasn’t on the official list. (Because we all very much believe the world’s most elite athletes eat Chicken McNuggets.) In 2015, the IOC changed the rules around a bit, AdWeek reports, but there is a still a lot of red tape for nonofficial brands and their athletes.
Those changes allow athletes to appear in generic advertising that does not explicitly mention the games or use any Olympic intellectual property (the Olympic rings, and terms such as “Olympics” “2016” “Rio,” “games” and “gold” are off limits). Athletes also are now allowed to tweet about non-official sponsors provided they don’t use such Olympic IP.
Under these new rules, ad campaigns for nonofficial sponsors had to be submitted and approved by the IOC back in January and had to begin running in March. This works out fine for a large company like Under Armour, which can afford to keep top athletes like Michael Phelps on the payroll year-round to star prominently in marketing. This “Rule Yourself” spot from Under Armour doesn’t include any of the IOC’s banned terms, but 90 seconds of Phelps lifting weights and swimming laps gets the point across loud and clear. This is an ad about the Olympics, without saying it’s about the Olympics. For smaller companies, it’s not always feasible to contract an athlete months in advance, especially when decisions about who will actually compete in the Games won’t be made for another four months. (Phelps is a no-brainer, but many would-be competitors have no idea if they’ll be competing until the final scores and times are tallied at Olympic trials. Choose the wrong athlete and a brand is stuck with a very sad spokesperson who won’t be much help in Rio.)
Sally Bergesen, CEO of Oiselle, a company that sponsors track and field athletes, explained how the the updated rules still don’t do much to help nonofficial sponsors, or their athletes, in a blog post earlier this year. “Not only are we not allowed to mention (tweet, post, home page, email, etc.) the athletes we might have there, but as a “non-Olympic partner,” Oiselle (and any other business) is forbidden from acknowledging that the Olympics are even taking place,” Bergesen explained, listing all the phrases her company still cannot use, including “Olympics,” “games,” “gold,” “silver,” “bronze,” “summer”, “2016,” and “challenge.”
So instead, Bergesen, and every other company that isn’t on the official sponsor list, will have to cheer their athletes via Twitter with rousing choruses of Move efficiently while wearing our product, you athletically inclined person! and Bring home a hunk of refined metal that currently sells for $1,364.20 an ounce! Which will definitely be something to look out for next month when events kick off in that Brazilian city we’ll denote only by its ongoing Zika problem and construction delays, instead of its name.