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Olympic Ambush Marketing Campaigns that Take the Gold Medal

Posted by Keely Brown on February 22, 2018

How many people have watched the 2018 Winter Olympics? Apparently so many, NBC's national ad sales have passed $900 million. To put it in perspective, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio garnered a global television audience of 3.2 billion and a digital audience of more than 1 billion -- and the PyeongChang games are slated to capture similar ratings.

With so many ecommerce solutions and platforms available, today's companies can create a fantastic myriad of TV and digital marketing campaigns to leverage the popularity of the Olympics -- but only if they have the money to pay for it.

The biggest barrier, imposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is Rule 40, which bans advertisers from using the names or images of Olympics participants during the games unless the advertiser is an Olympic sponsor (which accounts for all those VISA and Toyota commercials featuring Olympic superstars such as Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin). This type of Olympic sponsorship, however, can cost as much as $100 million. Even a standard 30-second TV ad (without superstar athletes) costs around $96,000.

That's why ambush marketing was born: as a way for clever, adventurous companies to circumvent these rules and costs, while still latching on to the bright, burning flame of the Olympic torch. Here are some Olympic-sized ambush campaigns that have managed to win hearts and customers through their cleverness -- and their audacity.


Budweiser Brings It Home

Budweiser Canada achieved ambush marketing notoriety at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics with its "Let It Shine" ad campaign. Still garnering thousands of views on YouTube, it features Wayne Gretzky and other hockey legends joining legions of fans who are breathlessly watching a championship hockey game, with everyone erupting in cheers when the "home" team scores the winning goal. Before the final score, bar staff are putting gold, medal-shaped coasters on the beer glasses -- another subliminal link to the gold medal. The brilliance of the ad is that it doesn't reference the Olympics even once; yet the gold-tinted camera lighting, the gold lanterns held by the fans, the gold beer coasters, the ecstatic fans and the end caption "Bring It Home" all evoke powerful memories of the legendary Olympic victory of the 1980 U.S. hockey team.

Target's Shaun White Billboard

Olympics ambushing certainly isn't a new story -- and even some of today's PyeonChang athletes have unwittingly been the focus of past ambush campaigns. For example, superstar snowboarder Shaun White, who just won his third gold medal at the PyeongChang games, was featured on a series of Times Square billboards advertising Target during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Not being an Olympic sponsor, Target got around the notorious restrictions of Rule 40 by posting the billboards before the games began. By the day of the opening ceremony, Target altered the billboard by changing the image of White into a silhouette, accompanied by the message "Gone to Vancouver."

The Snowboard Kids

Two more Winter Olympic snowboarders worth mentioning, who already have generated a buzz, are women's halfpipe gold medalist, Chloe Kim, and men's slopestyle gold medal winner Red Gerard.

Both just 17, Chloe is the youngest woman ever to get gold in the halfpipe, and social media is loving everything about her -- those tweets about what she's snacking on, like this one about churros during the games, may have been the highest social media highlight of the winter games -- and her chosen apparel items such as Burton Hazel jacket and Oakley goggles, will no doubt set off a retail firestorm.

Red actually overlsept before going on to win the first gold of the 2018 Olympics, as well as is the youngest men's snowboarder ever to do it -- his style is a bit out there but beanies everywhere, like these from Spyder, are defintely going to be keeping many a fan heads warm throughout the chill.


Dr. Dre's Beats Headphones Giveaway

No newcomer to ambush marketing, Dr. Dre crashed the 2012 Summer Olympics in London with another ambush tactic: product placement. The company sent special versions of its Beats headphones to high-profile athletes -- each set decorated with the athlete's home flag. Notice was especially taken when superstars such as U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and British diver Tom Daley were seen (by millions of TV viewers) sporting the headphones immediately before their events -- and several athletes (include famed British soccer player Jack Butland) even brought social media marketing into the mix by tweeting about them. This high-profile product placement from the London games doubtless motivated consumers and B2B companies worldwide to search online for the cool-looking headphones.

Ambush marketing isn't for the faint of heart; rather, it can actually lead companies into trouble. For example, before the start of the PyeonChang games, FNC Entertainment was ordered to delete a series of ambush marketing articles tying in Korean pop sensation N.Flying with the Winter Olympics. When it's done the right way, however, companies can utilize this cheeky rogue marketing strategy to reach millions of new customers and bring home advertising gold.

Plus, partnering with an athlete can bring your brand from just a great product to riding alongside a social media influencer. It takes fans where they want to be, backstage and in the know, with minute by minute updates. Small marketers can benefit from the high exposure of the games, and social media has sparked a higher interest in the Olympics, and every brand, if they have the right tools, can cash in on and win big in the marketing games.

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