The Olympic Games are a huge commercial event and every four years advertisers try to extract value from its massive global exposure and viewer engagement. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) imposes strict rules on what advertisers and athletes are allowed to do during the so called “black-out” period of the Games. With the increased importance of social media for advertisers, the rules on what can and cannot be posted or shared are becoming more complicated and controversial and the IOC is performing an interesting balancing act. For example, on the one hand the use of Gifs and Vines is now, to the disappointment of many internet users, completely forbidden (except if you are an official rights holder). On the other hand, for Rio 2016, the IOC has for the first time relaxed the rules and allowed for athletes and advertisers to benefit from their long-term collaboration during the Games, without advertisers having to be official sponsors.
Interestingly, even though the more traditional social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook tend to be the focus of advertising and advertising regulation, a survey has found that a lot of the conversation around the Olympics will be held on dark social media, which is media that is not generally available to the public.
The Golden Rule for advertising during the Games – Rule 40
Rule 40 restricts Olympic athletes and Olympic officials and personnel from appearing in any advertising during the period of the Olympic Games unless it is approved by the IOC. Athletes can get into serious trouble for breaching these rules. Penalties could go as far as losing their medal albeit, in practice, this is hard to imagine.
In the time period between 27 July and 24 August (3 days after the Games), most athletes and brands must cut ties entirely. For advertisers the rule bans any reference to “Olympic-related” terms. The IOC casts a wide net when considering what terms are “Olympic-related” and thus terms such as “gold”, “silver”, “bronze”, “performance” and “challenge” may all be caught by the ban, depending on the context they are used in. Through this strict regulation, the IOC seeks to preserve sponsorship as a significant source of funding for the Games. With official sponsors such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s paying millions to be exclusively involved, it is not hard to see why the IOC wishes to ring-fence Games-related rights as much as possible.
The introduction of “licenced ambush marketing”
The IOC has made a new option available to advertisers at Rio 2016. Rule 40 used to mean one of two things for advertisers who are not official sponsors: either to stay clear of the Olympic hype and operate well within the rules or to use what is now known as “ambush marketing”. Ambush marketing means that advertisers attempt to benefit from the Olympics by creating a link in the audience’s mind between its brand and the Games without (strictly speaking) being non-compliant with Rule 40. Brands allude to Olympic themes in their campaigns and rely on the audience to make the Olympic connection themselves.
For Rio 2016, the IOC made a third way available – essentially, ambush marketing with permission. Brands that are not official sponsors can apply for permission from the IOC to feature Olympic athletes in their campaigns. However, crucially, such campaigns are not allowed to contain the restricted terms and must have been running continuously since 27 March. Meaning, those that do receive permission must know where to draw the line in hinting at the Olympics and not tread on the official sponsors’ feet. A prime example of a brand taking advantage of the changes to Rule 40 is Under Armour’s campaign with Michael Phelps which was uploaded to YouTube on 8 March 2016 – more than four months (!) before the Olympic opening ceremony.
A ban on GIFs
The major news in respect of online reporting of the Games was the IOC’s clamp-down on the use of Olympic footage being transformed into graphic animated formats – namely Gifs and Vines. This type of content is only allowed to be created and shown by official rights holders (BBC and NBC in the UK and USA respectively). The IOC’s guideline for broadcast of the Games, which contains this restriction, was published in May last year. However, the news of the rule on Gifs/Vines and reactions thereto, only really spread during the first week of the Olympics. Gifs in particular are proving to be an effective and memorable way to grab a viewer’s attention and are used by many media outlets to make their reporting more engaging.
In regards to the IOC’s enforcement of this ban, even though Olympic Gifs have largely disappeared from mainstream media, it is notoriously hard to clamp down on viral internet content. The Gif of Michael Phelps’ pre-race glare at Chad Le Clos, which has made its way through the social media sphere despite the ban, illustrates this well.
Dark Social Media Sharing
Dark social media sharing is not as ominous as it sounds. It is the sharing of content on media that is not available to the public at large, such as via Snapchat, instant messaging or forums. Research from advertising firm RadiumOne, has suggested that the majority of Olympic content will be shared on such dark social media. This presents some interesting questions. From the IOC’s perspective it is much harder to regulate what content is shared than on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, as the IOC has less visibility. From an advertiser’s perspective, it may mean that advertisers are missing out on a large part of the conversation around the Olympics and relatedly, such media is more difficult to track than using traditional web analytics.
A premiere – the first official Olympics alternative accommodation partnership
And finally, on the topic of looking outside of the Olympic stadiums, Rio 2016 marks the first Games in which Airbnb is officially involved and it has been running a notable campaign. As official supplier of alternative accommodation, it provides (by its own account) 55,000 visitors with a place to stay in Rio. Its advertising campaign shows how a brand, even an Olympic partner, can produce an Olympics-related campaign that goes beyond the sporting achievements. At a time where lots of adverts are focused on athletes “getting the gold”, this campaign takes a different approach. It showcases the people of Rio and introduces Rio’s Airbnb hosts. It attempts to not only reach travelers during the Olympics, but to create a lasting impression for those keen to visit Rio in the future.
Next time – notable advertising success stories during the Olympics. Which advertisers have managed to embrace the Olympic challenge and create gold-medal winning campaigns?