Ambush at Barcelona: Rivals are 'piggybacking' official sponsors of the Olympic Games, write Nick Fielding and Larry Black

THE GODS on Mount Olympus will be in for a surprise when they turn on their television sets next Saturday. While they must be used by now to the arrays of national flags at modern Olympic Games, this year they will also see different totems cluttering their screens - corporate logos.

Company advertising is not new at the Olympics, but the effort companies are making to secure maximum exposure at Barcelona is unprecedented. The big growth area is sponsorship - buying the right to be officially linked to the games. However, this is also the area where the knives are out and shenanigans are rife.

As the competition between rival firms has grown, so have accusations of 'ambush marketing' - brand rivals 'piggybacking' on the exclusive sponsorship deals of the official sponsors.

Amex and Visa, Kodak and Fuji, and Coke and Pepsi are just three sets of rival firms which, amid mutual recriminations, have sought to outsmart each other in the multi-million pound Olympic advertising scramble.

'As soon as Atlanta was awarded the rights for the 1996 summer games, Kodak bought 50 major poster sites in the city for the next four years at an estimated dollars 28,000 per month,' said Richard Busby, chief executive of Strategic Sponsorship, a leading UK consultancy.

The local Olympic organising committee had tried to negotiate a deal with the city's poster companies to offer Olympic sponsors first right of refusal but they were too late. As Fuji had already bought the camera film rights to the event, there are many red faces.

In one notorious ambush, Subway, an American fast-food chain, boasted of Olympic connections at the expense of McDonald's, relying on the dubious claim that some of its suppliers were official sponsors.

The bill-topping slanging match at this year's winter and summer Olympics, however, is between Visa International and American Express. The two card companies have been at war for a while, with Amex desperately trying to claw back lost ground. For it, the Olympics could be the crucial battleground.

Although Visa is an official sponsor and Amex is not, the dispute is not exactly a case of ambush marketing.

Last week, Amex unveiled new television and print advertising that coyly mentions Barcelona and 'fun and games'. It reminds travellers to bring their passports and American Express card. 'And remember, to visit Spain, you don't need a visa.'

Visa has paid dollars 20m ( pounds 10.4m) for the right to call itself the official sponsor of the games, and the International Olympic Committee - worried that sponsorship will lose its allure - has charged Amex with 'parasite marketing' and attempting to 'get a free ride off Visa, which is helping put on the event and helping to support American athletes'.

As Amex points out, however, Visa has taken advantage of its sponsorship of the games, which designates its card as the only one accepted at the ticket office, to run adverts that could easily be interpreted to mean that rival cards are refused everywhere else in Barcelona. Executives at the Amex advertising agency Chiat/Day say the 'counter-ads' merely correct untruths spread by Visa's ads, which boast that the Olympics 'don't take American Express'.

In March, Amex went on the offensive against Visa, demanding that Dick Pound, the IOC's global marketing director, 'put a halt to their odious campaign'. But Visa has refused the IOC's appeal to stop attacking Amex in the Olympic ads, and Mr Pound has been obliged to repeat earlier threats to sue Amex along with other alleged copyright violators such as Pepsi.

Amex claims it would not have launched its campaign if Visa had not attacked it first. But the charge card and travel service company - like other Olympic fellow travellers - also defended its right to use Olympic imagery and references.

The conflict leaves the IOC and national Olympic teams in a quandary, even if they could legally enforce their ambushing claims. Many of those accused of 'piggybacking' on the Olympic sponsorship of their rivals are valuable backers of individual teams. An IOC crackdown would therefore amount to cannibalism, according to marketing analysts.

Meanwhile, the growth in sponsorship has led to confusion, even without ambushing.

At Barcelona, the local Olympic committee has raised dollars 516m from marketing rights, more than three times the amount raised in Seoul (dollars 160m) or Los Angeles (dollars 150m). For the first time, sponsorship and merchandising deals have raised more money than television rights, despite the fact that America's NBC has paid dollars 416m and despite big new sales to Arab, Asian and South African TV.

Selling sponsorship was originally intended to free the IOC from its traditional dependence on the sale of TV rights, which accounted for more than 90 per cent of its income only a few years ago.

The 12 official sponsors of the Albertville and Barcelona games are paying a total of dollars 170m for the honour, providing the IOC with about half its budget, according to Mr Pound. Much more is coming from the smaller sponsors.

In several countries, however, sponsorship of the games has produced conflicts between TV advertisers and sponsors, and between sponsors at different levels. This is due to the way rights are sold. Some, such as Mars, Brother and Coke, are worldwide sponsors who pay the IOC and are allowed to use the five Olympic rings on all their advertising. Others, such as Seat and Banesto Bank, are national sponsors with no rights outside Spain. A third layer sponsors particular national teams.

Although sponsorship is sold in product categories within each layer, one sponsor may be in direct competition with another at a different level.

At the Albertville winter Olympics, for example, Chrysler - which paid handsomely for the right to sponsor the winter games - found its promotions in the US surrounded by those of Ford, which bought advertising time during the games from the CBS television network, and Subaru, which supports the US ski team.

Coca Cola, which paid dollars 33m for the worldwide right to sport the Olympic symbol, is outraged over a Pepsi commercial highlighting the participation of Magic Johnson, who is on its payroll, in the US Olympic basketball team. Footwear makers Reebok, Nike and Converse are also arguing over the right to feature their sponsored players in advertisements over the next few weeks.

'We don't think the IOC or Coca Cola owns free speech,' a Pepsi spokesman told the US media last week. 'And we think America will agree.'

Fuji similarly feels free to advertise its backing of the US track and field team, despite the fact that Eastman Kodak is an official Olympic sponsor; Bristol-Myers's Nuprin is the 'official pain-reliever' of the Olympics, but Johnson & Johnson, the company that makes rival Tylenol, was the exclusive pharmaceutical sponsor of CBS's Albertville broadcast.

The IOC has hinted that it may change the way it sells sponsorships for future games, but this is unlikely to happen in time for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

The first two big sponsors for Atlanta - cake company Sara Lee (dollars 40m paid) and Nationsbank (dollars 40m) have already been announced. They will probably spend the same again in the run-up to the games.

John Krimsky, the IOC's deputy secretary general, said earlier this year that if the IOC wanted to continue charging tens of millions of dollars for the right to sport its logo, it 'must meet the need of exclusivity for sponsors'. Some consolidation of international, national and team sponsorships would help to 'eliminate any confusion in the public's mind,' he added.

As for the athletes, many have their own exclusive deals now that professionalism has penetrated almost every corner of organised sport. The irony is that national teams probably do least well from sponsorship. The UK team, for example, has tried to raise pounds 3m over the last four years - a target it has just about met.

(Photograph omitted)

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