At its best it is an innovative and revolutionary way of advertising. At its worst it undermines integrity and value of commercial sponsorship. Regardless of how you look at it, ambush marketing is a phenomenon that has gained considerable traction in recent years and the unique, worldwide appeal of sport has meant it is a commonly used tactic by companies and organisations wanting to cash-in on major sporting events. This piece will look to define ambush marketing in a sporting context, how it used, the issues it poses to sport and whether it can be combatted in a sufficient manner.
Understanding ambush marketing
Ambush marketing typically involves brands that have no agreed connection or affiliation to the event duping the audience into believing they are. Other occasions of ambush marketing will see a brand look to ‘piggyback’ off the success of other brands. The term was originally coined in the 1980s by an American Express marketer and the practice in sporting events can be traced back as far as the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul where American Express employed ambush marketing techniques in an attempt to trump their rival Visa, who were an official sponsor of the Games.
Nike’s ambush marketing campaign for Euro 1996 and the 1998 World Cup have perhaps had the most lasting effect on sport governing bodies. In a bid to prevent the official tournament sponsors Umbro and Adidas from advertising near host venues, Nike purchased all available advertising space around the venues. Consequently UEFA decided to counter this type of ambush marketing by forcing all future sponsors to buy advertising space within a 1.3 mile radius of each venue. Other governing bodies have since followed in UEFA’s footsteps and potential hosts for sporting events must now satisfy governing bodies that these exclusion zones can be enforced.
The tightening restrictions has led to brands employing more innovative ways of practising ambush marketing. During the 2010 World Cup where Budweiser was one of the sponsors, the Dutch beer company Bavaria pushed boundaries to the extreme by sending 36 women to sit in the stands during the game between Denmark and the Netherlands in an effort to advertise their beer. The women were ejected from the stadium by FIFA officials but it is a clear demonstration of how far brands will now go to skirt restrictions to reap the rewards of sport and its profile.
The betting company Paddy Power, no stranger to controversy, placed billboards throughout London in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games which stated they were the “official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year”. Naturally the unsuspecting member of the public would rightfully believe Paddy Power were sponsoring the Olympic Games. In considerably smaller lettering however the advertisement pointed out that the London in question was in reference to the small French farming village of London which hosts an annual egg-and-spoon race. This stunt resulted in legal action being threatened against Paddy Power by the London Olympics organising committee though the billboards ultimately remained.
Ambush marketing can have a damaging affect on the integrity of sporting events and the value of official sponsorship. Sporting organisations want to be able to keep their event exclusive since this creates more lucrative sponsorship deals. Perhaps the biggest issue with ambush marketing is that the damage is already done and there is no real remedy once it has happened. An increase in ambush marketing will only lead sponsors to question why they are bothering to pay out large fees to be an official sponsor when ambush marketing techniques provide a more economical alternative and often the shock value of the practice leads to more success. Furthermore many organisers will be worried about the potential of a perceived toxic brand attaching themselves to their event. This could likely have a damage effect on reputation,
Lawmakers often have a difficult time in coming up with ways to prevent ambush marketing due to their innovative nature. In many cases where the brand is claiming association with the sporting event organisers can rely on copyright laws. The large majority of bodies will have trademarked the competition’s name, slogan and emblem amongst other things therefore safeguards are in place for more clear cut cases.
As has been highlighted however there are cases where the boundaries are blurred. In these scenarios organisers can be protected by the law of passing off. If a brand does not expressly state association but creates such an impression then a tort of passing off will likely be brought against them.
More draconian measures may be taken by organisers by working with government to create legislation to prevent ambush marketing. Legislation such as the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 extended the safeguards for organisers by preventing unauthorised brands and sponsors from trading near event zones while also blacklisting a number of words that had Olympic connotations. The 2006 World Cup in Germany brought in similar measures to bolster protection, albeit the new laws were only emergency legislation. It does however indicate the length to which organisers can and will go in order to protect the sanctity of their event.
Event organisers can also be proactive in preventing ambush marketing. Tickets sold for events will likely carry a condition that the holder does not partake in anything that could be deemed advertising. Similarly brands who are not official sponsors are prevented from offering tickets as a promotion. Increasingly organisers are also ensuring that athletes, coaches and even volunteers don’t advertise with unofficial sponsors. It is now commonplace for these parties to contractually bound not to promote unauthorised brands or products. Organisers are not hesitant to enforce these rules, as seen when Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner was fined €100,000 for revealing underwear which had the Paddy Power branding on them during a game.