How Brands Leveraged the Olympics Arcalea

Olympics, Rio 2016.

By the time this blog post goes up, the 2016 Rio Olympics will be over. This year’s Olympics will be remembered for its controversies: the Zika virus, government corruption, and Russia’s doping scandal.  

But it will also be remembered for its series of “firsts”: the first time Kosovo, South Sudan, and the Refugee Olympic team competed, the first to be hosted in a South American city, the first woman to compete in a hijab, and the first Olympic games to be broadcast in Virtual Reality.

With all this hype, it seems like a no-brainer that a brand could use all this Olympic buzz and controversy to boost traffic or sales, right?

Well, not exactly.

Rule 40 and Olympic Censorship

Under the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Rule 40, the Olympics have always restricted the use of advertising by non-partners. Official sponsors, such as McDonald’s, P&G, and Visa, have essentially had a monopoly on all branded Olympic advertising. This meant Olympians were forbidden from mentioning their non-official sponsors, and non-official sponsors couldn’t use their sponsored athletes or Olympic IP in their ads.

Rule 40 got a bit of an update back in February 2015. For the first time, athletes were allowed to be used in generic non-official ads, as long as no Olympic IP was used, such as logos, or terms such as:

  • 2016
  • Olympics
  • Rio/ Rio De Janeiro
  • Games
  • Gold, silver, or bronze
  • Medal
  • Effort
  • Performance
  • Challenge
  • Summer
  • Sponsors
  • Victory
  • Olympian

The only catch? Athletes and non-sponsor brands had to submit their waivers to USOC by January 27, 2016, and their ads must have been running since March 27.

The IOC established Rule 40 to prevent what they call “Ambush Marketing,” which refers to any direct or indirect reference to the Olympics in promotions. Rule 40 was set up to “preserve the unique nature of the Olympic Games by preventing over-commercialisation”, but has instead resulted in protection of official sponsors to have exclusive advertising rights.

That hasn’t stopped brands from coming up with creative workarounds to capitalize on the Olympics. Here’s a list of the several ways that brands have incorporated the Olympics in their digital marketing, even with the restriction.

Social Media

 Oiselle and Hashtags

Oiselle's Facebook Post using #freebird16 to circumvent Rule 40

Source: Oiselle Blog

Oiselle, a women’s athletic apparel brand, has been one of the most vocal advertisers against Rule 40. To navigate around the censorship of certain Olympic words on Social media, Oiselle has been using some unique and creative hashtags like #freebird16 to show support for their athletes. They’ve even been forced to use #TheBigEvent or simply the “Big Event” in place of the “Olympics.” While it may sound eccentric, Oiselle have been leaders in the discussion of sponsors against Rule 40.

Ford and Snapchat Ads

Ford's Snapchat Ads for the Olympics

Source: Ad Age

Despite its brand’s large clout and resource pool, Ford was not selected as an official Olympic sponsor. This hasn’t stopped them from developing some creative 10-second Snap Ads, that feature ordinary people doing ordinary tasks. One of the videos show an ordinary busboy carrying 6 plates of food on one arm, with the superimposed copy: “We are all weightlifters.” It’s a simple, yet highly effective way of contributing to the international discussion, while staying out of USOC’s legal grip.

Online Videos

BuzzFeed Video – “Simone Biles And Her Mom Talk About Their Relationship”

BuzzFeed is a brand known posting content on popular culture, so there was no way they would pass up the chance to talk about the Olympics because of Rule 40. None of the Olympics-related Buzzfeed’s videos feature any of the blacklisted words, but they do still manage to involve some prominent Olympians, such as Simone Biles.

In the video with Simone Biles, there’s no mention of any sponsorship or Rio or the rest of the Olympics, just Simone talking with her grandmother.

Under Armour Ads – “Rule Yourself”

If you want to see an example of an emotionally-charged ad without any Olympics branding, look no further than Under Armour’s “Rule Yourself” campaign. Originally started in 2015, Under Armour created some new spots for the 2016 Rio Games, which feature Team USA’s Women’s Gymnastics and Michael Phelps training in the dark, followed by the single tagline: “It’s what you do in the dark, that puts you in the light.” The latter ad has already become the second most shared Olympics ad of 2016, racked up 10 million views on YouTube, and won an award at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Content Marketing

99u – “How the 2016 Olympic Logo and Font Were Created”

How can you write about the Olympics if you’re not a sponsor, or even in the athletic apparel industry? For 99u, a blog on productivity and creativity, a simple article on how the Rio logo was created is all it takes. The blog post covers the history, challenge, people, vision, and evolution behind the current Rio logo. And because this is an article providing news and information, 99u doesn’t have to answer to USOC.

People Magazine – “Runner Sarah Brown – Who Gave Birth Four Months Ago – Competes at the Olympic Trials Today”

Of course, there are also less subtle but equally effective ways of capturing traffic and attention. Popular celebrity and human-interest magazine People wrote up a post focusing on Sarah Brown’s training regimen during her pregnancy. These kinds of stories resonate with the general public interested in the stories of Olympians, as well as targeting the large female demographic that read People magazine.

Display Ads

DirecTV, Chevrolet, T-Mobile, and more

MediaRadar Media Mix of Olympic Advertising

According to MediaRadar, a multimedia sales platform, 349 brands (of the 482 that ran Olympic television ads) ran digital display ads. MediaRadar analyzed 6,000 branded websites, and gave each one a “Digital Placement Score” based on ad type, location, density on page, media format, and frequency.

DirectTV had more display ads than any other brand, spending a lot of time and money towards publicizing its DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket offering. The NFL Sunday Ticket campaign had ads on 30 websites and received a score of 4,315, while another campaign was on 45 websites and got a score of 1,495. These were only two out of 19 TV and digital campaigns.

Even if the Olympics are already fading in our memories, there’s a lot to still analyze and learn from today, especially from a marketing perspective. Even though the next Olympics won’t be for another four years, some of these lessons we can apply now. The most important takeaway is that it doesn’t matter if you’re restricted from a certain playing field, or barred from mentioning certain things. What matters is how you deal with limitations. As you can see from these examples, sometimes the simplest workarounds are the most creative approaches.