Don Draper, aka Dick Whitman, the fictional Mad Men anti-hero who lent his genius to developing super brands but thought sports endorsements ‘lazy’, might have had a thing or two to say about the London 2012 Olympics. By Draper’s logic,it would seem there’s a lot of lazy marketing executives out there looking to get a piece of the Olympic pie. For a global sporting event that at first glance is lacking in track-side marketing there are an awful lot of companies hoping to make a pound or several thousand – even million – on the back of their association with this year’s Olympic Games.
Unless you are an affiliated brand you cannot buy advertising space at the Olympic park, across London or even within 500m of peripheral venues like Cardiff’s Millennium stadium. Even cafés and bars within such exclusion zones are prohibited from putting out so much as a sandwich board on competition days. This misdirection means viewers watching London’s first Olympics of the 21st Century might think it refreshingly free of commercialism. There will be no scrolling text on hoardings inside the venues or slogans emblazoned across a competitor’s shirt, yet this commercial opportunity is not one the sponsors are willing to waste. Commercialism will be all around you, hidden in plain view. Olympic marketing is all done by association, bathing in reflected glory.
Victoria Pendleton / Hovis
These days the teams themselves are brands. The home squad has branded itself Team GB. Having finished 4th on the Beijing 2008 medal table behind the sporting superpowers of China, the USA and Russia and with at least the same expected this time round, Team GB’s stock is riding high. Many of Britain’s 500 or so Olympic competitors will struggle for greater public recognition without their team kit but for those entering the games as reigning champions or genuine medal hopes, the opportunity for them to market themselves as distinct brands in their own right is unprecedented. Household names like Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon and Cosmo cover girl), Mo Farah (5000m fuelled by Lucozade, naturally), Hovis girl and FHM hottie, Victoria Pendleton (Track Cycling) and rising stars like brothers Alistair and Johnny ‘BT infinity’ Brownlee (triathlon) adorn billboards across Britain. In recent days, weeks and months the list of products advertised by Team GB members include the obligatory sports clothing and drinks, cars ( Italian/German, Fiat), bikes, satellite television and insurance. Team GB has never had it so good as the sponsorship revenue continues to rolls in. This approach to marketing is of course not without its conflicts. Team GB, and the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) are officially supplied by Adidas. Mo Farah and potential marathon medallist Paula Radcliffe are sponsored by Nike. There arises the absurd possibility of Farah and Radcliffe mounting the podium in bare feet – should they live up to their potential as medallists. Team GB athletes must enter into a contract with the British Olympic Association to compete. This includes signing up to the team sponsorship deals. These deals could well be in breach of the deals the athletes hold with their individual sponsors. As a podium statement it wouldn’t quite be Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos’ black power raised fists but it would hardly pass unnoticed. Of course this could be the best type of publicity, that which you don’t even have to pay for. Column inches would be generated rehashing the commercial conflict of interests with the brand names involved stated and restated in the context of a story.
Symmonds’ tattoo advert
The position of the would-be golden boys and girls of Team GB is in stark contrast to many athletes from around the world. Coping with a more challenging economic environment and lack of patriotic fervour, athletes of other nations have taken to social media and adopted a more ingenious approach to sponsorship. American middle distance runner Nick Symmonds has come up with an interesting method of attracting potential sponsors. Symmonds launched an ebay auction, publicised via Twitter, selling the opportunity to have a Twitter callout and username semi-permanently tattooed on his shoulder. The winning bid was reportedly worth around $11,000. Considering that even spectators will be required to limit the ‘marketing’ material they are allowed wear at the Olympic venues, its highly unlikely Symmonds would be allowed take to the Olympic track with his commercial body art. Irish athlete Ciarain O’Lionaird, who enjoys a cult status in both America and his native land akin to that of 70′s legend Steve Prefontaine, has looked to capitalise on his appeal with a simple paypal donation button on his website, promoted, once again, via Twitter. All of this may seem far removed from De Courbetin’s original Olympic ideals which insisted upon amateurism. What is often forgotten is that this ideal was born out of an admiration for the ‘gentleman’ sportsman as developed in the English Independent schools system. It was never intended as a sort of Spartan sporting ideal. It was only relatively late in the 20th century that the social and economic realities of life began to encourage the IOC to change its stance. Amateurism was either ‘Shamatuerism’ with athletes circumventing the rules or it meant the best in the world were not present in events such as cycling and tennis. For many athletes chasing sponsorship is simply a means to an end, a way to help fund the full time training and follow the global merry-go-rounds most Olympic sports now demand. For many aiming for the games, it is a not for profit enterprise. Who can blame them for seeking to maximise what earnings they can in a career that may last only a very few years? Perhaps, of greater concern to many sporting fans who accept the realities of the situation, is the toll media appearances, promotions, photo shoots, etc. take on an athlete’s preparation. How many of the poster boys and girls so adept in performing for the camera will out perform their peers?