London 2012: Ambush Ads Take On Official Sponsors as Olympics Begins

london 2012 olympics logo

Nike launches London-themed sports spot, betting company Paddy Power begins ambush poster campaign.

COLOGNE, Germany – Let the ambush games begin! On the eve of the London 2012 Olympic Games, another competition with a long history – companies trying to piggy-back on the marketing hype surrounding the Olympics without paying millions to be official sponsors - has kicked off in ernest.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and London organizers has pledged to crack down on any advertisers associating themselves with the Games without permission. In a first for an Olympics, the British Parliament passed legislation criminalizing such ambush advertising, making even lesser offenses punishable by fines of $30,000 (£20,000) or more. The goal was to protect the investment of official Olympic sponsors including Adidas, Coca-Cola and MacDonalds, which have paid upwards of $1 billion for the right to use the Olympic name and logo.

But that hasn't stopped the corporate gate crashers which have again found a way around the rules.

Nike this week launched a global TV campaign tied to the Olympics opening ceremony, in which amateur  athletes compete in places around the world called London. There are runners in London, Ontario, cyclists in London, Nigeria and shots from London, Ohio and Little London in Jamaica. Just none from "that“ London.

The spot is a none-too-subtle dig at the hoopla surrounding the Olympics and by association, the millions spent by official Olympics sponsors such as Nike arch-rival Adidas.

“There are no grand celebrations here, no speeches, no bright lights,” a narrator with an English accent says in the ad's voice over, "Somehow we’ve come to believe that greatness is reserved for the chosen few, for the superstars. The truth is, greatness is for all of us.”

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has taken a lower-budget approach to ambush marketing, slapping up billboards near the Olympics venue claiming Paddy Power's is the "Official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year! There you go, we said it". The poster then reveals it is talking about the town of London, France and that the"athletics event“ is an egg and spoon race.

The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games initially ordered the  posters to be taken down but reversed that decision after Paddy Power threatened to take Locog to court.

Olympic organizers are being careful not to appear too heavy-handing in punishing such sponsorship violations after comments by Locog chairman Sebastian Coe earlier this month sparked a public backlash. Speaking on a British radio program, Lord Coe suggested Olympic ticket holders might be turned away from events if they showed up with T-Shirts bearing non-official sponsorship brands, such as Pepsi.

London Olympics officials later backtracked, saying Lord Coe had misheard the question and that there would be no sponsorship dress code for Olympics visitors.

Both Nike and Paddy Power are experienced ambushers when it comes to cashing in on major sporting events. For the 2010 Soccer World Cup Nike produced a wildly-popular ad featuring some of the world's biggest soccer stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. At this summer's European Cup, Paddy Power got into trouble when Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner pulled down his shorts during a goal celebration to reveal underwear bearing the logo of the Irish bookmakers. Soccer body UEFA fined Bendtner $126,000 for the incident, which Paddy Power said was spontaneous and not an incident of ambush marketing. The Dublin bookmakers, however, offered to pay the fine.

Even without the subterfuge, Nike's trademark swoosh will be on display at the London Olympics. The sportswear giant is the official sponsor of the United States Olympic team, so any Team U.S.A. medal winners will be allowed to wear Nike gear during medal ceremonies. And all athletes competing at London 2012 are allowed to wear whatever footwear they choose, insuring Nike's logo will be prominent throughout the tournament.

The Olympic ambushers have so far avoided official sanction but other sponsored athletes have generated controversy ahead of the Games. Britain's ad watchdog, the Advertising standards Authority, last month banned a Twitter campaign by, among others, Nike-sponsored soccer star Wayne Rooney. The ban, the first ever censure of a Twitter campaign, said Rooney's posts, which included the Nike "Make it Count“ slogan, failed to make clear that they were an advertisement. Nike has appealed the decision.

And U.K. regulators this week banned Virgin Media's multimillion dollar TV campaign featuring Olympic and World sprinting champion Usain Bolt. Regulators say the Virgin Media ads, which feature Bolt wearing a beard and imitating Virgin founder Richard Branson, made false claims about the performance of the company's broadband service.