What is Ambush Marketing?

In 1984, the Olympics became a self-sustaining entity when the International Olympics Committee (IOC) put on its first games that did not require public funding. They accomplished this by offering lucrative sponsorship contracts that provided exclusive rights to “official sponsors.” Unknowingly, they also gave birth to new advertising strategy known as “Ambush Marketing.”

Ambush marketing is an emotionally-charged phrase that refers to the practice of appearing to align a brand with an event for which that brand has not paid for the right to be a sponsor. Probably this practice had existed in some form long before 1984, but the sheer volume of money involved and the worldwide attention given Olympic events have led many to view the 1984 Olympic games as the origin of ambush marketing.

1984 – Kodak Ambushes Fuji – Ambush Marketing Is Born

Fuji won the rights to be an official sponsor of the 1984 Olympic games, leaving Kodak out in the cold. However, Kodak responded by purchasing extensive advertising during the broadcast of the games. Although Fuji was the official sponsor, many viewers saw Kodak’s ads and mistakenly believed Kodak was a sponsor too.

Since then, sponsorship contracts and competitor tactics have escalated in a constant battle to maintain the value and integrity of sponsorships while allowing for free trade and creative advertising.

Some ambush campaigns flirt with the law; others clearly break it. Yet, the value of these sponsorships ensures someone will be planning an attack on a corporate sponsor’s exclusivity. If you can get your brand in the broadcast or media images or even in the news surrounding an event, many viewers will not remember why you were there, but simply that you were.

Is Ambush Marketing Legal?

Many high profile instances have proven to be perfectly legal. It can be cost prohibitive for a sponsor to control every ad outlet associated with an event, leaving gaps that competitors can purchase.

Furthermore, many early sponsorship contracts simply did not take into account these marketing strategies that competitors would try.

1. Some ambushes are legal.

When Kodak purchased broadcast ads for the 1984 Olympics, they acted fully within their legal rights. Fuji may have felt it was unfair, but nothing in their sponsorship contract guaranteed that no competitor’s ads would run during the games.

In another highly publicized ambush marketing campaign, American Express sought to undermine Visa’s Olympic sponsorship. American Express ran ads that skirted breaking the law. Leading up to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, they ran ads that said, “You don’t need a visa to visit Spain.” These were ruled legal as they did not mention any trademarked phrases.

The NHL sued Pepsi in Canada in over ads that mentioned cities and events that fans would associate with their local NHL team despite the fact that Coca-Cola was the official soft drink of the NHL. The NHL felt Pepsi made a connection to their brand with these ads. However, Pepsi prevailed because their ads did not mention NHL team names or other trademarked brands or phrases.

2. Some are illegal.

Other situations are not legal and these can have repercussions for brands that go too far. In the wake of past ambushes, many organizations and cities have enacted laws and regulations that further protect their entities from encroachment.

In 2003, Coors settled with the NCAA for $75,000 because Coors held a sweepstakes using NCAA tickets as the grand prize. At the time, NCAA tickets clearly stated that they could not be awarded as prizes without the consent of the NCAA. Despite being asked to desist, Coors went ahead and awarded the prize, and even planned another sweepstakes for the following season.

In order to secure the agreement with Coors, the NCAA threatened to expel any winners who tried to redeem their tickets. Had it come to this, both brands likely would have suffered from the negative press associated with expelling fans.

3. New Contracts Better Define Sponsorships

Event owners have improved their sponsorship packages in the decades they have been responding to ambushes. They work with local media outlets and broadcasters to ensure that they can offer black out areas where competing ads will not be permitted. Many cities now enact ordinances to support local event advertising blackouts.

Is Ambush Marketing Ethical?

As many examples have borne out, many people feel these tactics are unfair even when they are legal. If a company has purchased exclusive rights to sponsor an event, sponsors and event owners feel that other companies should respect the deal and focus their marketing efforts elsewhere.

1. Naive expectations of fairness are foolish.

If a marketing tactic is legal, some competitor will likely take advantage of thhe opportunity. There are rarely just two competing brands in a market, and nice guys finish last. Playing fair may mean playing foolish.

Corporations have a responsibility to their stockholders to pursue activities that contribute to their bottom line and not leave these avenues open to their competition. Some experts even posit that taking a hard stance against ambush marketing impedes free trade.

2. Many layers of sponsorship cause confusion.

Beyond the lack of practicality in the assumption that everyone will back off and do what a sponsor considers to be the right thing, advertisers and events also struggle with the issue of multiple layers of sponsorship. Long before a team or player arrives at an event, that entity may have entered into sponsorship agreements that have to be honored.

As event owners promise more exclusivity, they push individuals and teams into conflicts of interest. This has led some organizations to go to extreme lengths to protect sponsorships.

In India, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has run into problems with this to the point that many players nearly boycotted the championship in 2003. They felt they could not participate in accordance with strict ICC sponsorship rules without running afoul of their individual or team contracts.

What Is at Stake?

Many people are involved to some degree in ambush marketing, and their conflicting needs add to the emotion surrounding these marketing strategies.

1. Event Owners

Ambush marketing campaigns dilute the value of an event sponsorship. In order to maximize the revenue they can generate from an event, owners strive to combat marketing that impinges on their brand and event sponsorships.

Many have blamed event owners for the clumsy situations in the past which arose from sponsorship packages that did not provide full exclusivity to sponsors. Event owners carved up rights packages that maximized their revenue without considering the implications for sponsors.

Event owners have since learned the importance of retaining some control over broadcast rights, and constructing packages that either offer more exclusivity or at least make it clear to potential sponsors that they may have to purchase more ads to monopolize the situation.

Cities seeking to lure world events like the Olympics now have to assemble agreements from local media outlets in advance and promise local ordinances that protect sponsors from ambush attempts. Putting these laws in place reassures potential sponsors, has helped discourage or prevent some tactics, and offers legal recourse when laws are disregarded.

2. Sponsors

Event sponsors have had to learn that buying a sponsorship alone may not provide the exclusive coverage they seek. After paying for the sponsorship, they may need to spend up to three times more money buying up local and broadcast advertising. Only by controlling all the media can they hope to blanket an event with their brand and drown out the competition.

Still, there has to be some realism involved too. With so many layers of sponsorship, particularly in athletics, it can be hard for any company to completely own the glory.

Sponsors also have to strike a balance between protecting their rights and not generating press about their competition. The more these conflicts can be settled quietly, the less publicity their ambushers win from a situation.

3. Athletes

Many players are caught in an endorsement maze where they have to black out brand labels on their uniforms and shoes in order to participate in world class events. When Michael Jordan accepted his Olympic medal on the podium in 1992, he had to drape a towel over the Adidas brand to satisfy his individual contract with Nike. Even though Adidas was the Olympic sponsor, Nike knew those photos of Jordan on the podium would persist for years, and they moved to protect their association with Jordan.

4. Competing Advertisers

As mentioned above, advertisers are tasked not to respect the desires of the competition, but to find was to creatively outperform them. Many advertisers find they are taking shots when competitors cry foul for activities that are within the law and may even be outside the advertiser’s control.

Some situations involve what may be innocent references to non-sponsor products. In the 2010 Olympics, Speedo bathing suits were credited with better performances from athletes who attested to their benefits, although Speedo was not a sponsor. Pretty soon media personnel were discussing the brand and its potential benefit, which we can expect will lead to new ordinances and contracts governing what the media are allowed to report.

Competing advertisers should be aware of the rules in place before launching an ambush campaign. Even when an advertiser does not break the law, the perception of wrongdoing may lead to difficulty securing future contracts or sponsorships.

5. Fans

Fans have been caught in the middle of this as they unwittingly promote advertisers in ambush campaigns.

In 2006, the brewer Bavaria gave away their branded lederhosen to Dutch fans traveling to Germany to watch the Fifa World Cup, sponsored by competing brewer Anheuser Busch. When thousands fans arrived wearing branded merchandise from a non-sponsor, officials forced those fans to remove their lederhosen and watch the game in their underclothes.

There have been reports of schoolchildren in South Africa having to remove Coca-Cola stickers from their lunch boxes and labels from the soft drinks within the lunch boxes in order to gain entrance to a sporting event. It is unclear whether Coca-Cola was responsible for placing the stickers and drinks there, but this story demonstrates the lengths to which some expect they can inconvenience fans to protect sponsorships.

Ambush Marketing Takes Many Forms:

* Broadcast advertising – Many advertisers try to run ads during an event for which a competitor is a sponsor.
* Billboards in host city and major inbound routes – Many cities now include blackout offers for major events, but smaller events may be ripe for these ad blitzes.
* Apparel worn by participants – Players are increasingly forced to tape over brand names on their apparel when competing in sponsored events. Still, as with the 2010 Speedo swimsuits, word gets out.
* Apparel worn by fans – Although some venues may come down hard on large scale organized campaigns, items like hats and other accessories may slip under their radar. If not, at least your fans will still be fully dressed when asked to remove a visor.
* Creative use of vehicles like blimps, sailboat sails, and the sides of trucks – Did anyone say it would be illegal to park ten trucks around the city with your brand name on them? Actually, it is possible now for large events that a city will have enacted such an ordinance, but for smaller events these can be a great way to gain brand visibility in the neighborhood.
* Use of similar slogans or place names – Leading up to an event, your ads can mimic your competitor’s and the event’s as long as you do not break the law.

Your Ambush Marketing Campaign

You may be wondering what this means for your business. Whether you are currently involved in the lucrative business of athletics sponsorship or not, you may be able to use ambush marketing tactics to benefit your advertising efforts and diminish the success of your competitor’s sponsorships.

Corporate sponsorships are moving into many new industries and fields. Opportunities abound for creative advertisers who are not afraid to venture into the gray areas surrounding these forms of advertising.

1. Understand the legal implications.

Before you engage in any marketing that falls into gray areas, you will want to be sure you understand whether or not you are breaking the law and what the penalties might be.

Some countries have enacted strict laws that call for the incarceration of principals involved in ambush marketing campaigns. That may not be worth the risk for your company.

Many advertisers have skirted the law by using city names and dates without referring specifically to trademarked events. You should have your campaign vetted to be sure you stay inside the law or you could end up wasting your money on ads or marketing materials that are suppressed.

2. Be prepared to be the bad guy.

Legal or not, some people are going to be offended by an ambush campaign. The more publicity associated with an event, the bigger the potential backlash your firm may encounter in the press or online. Defensive postures only fan the flames of bad publicity, so you need to be prepared to accept responsibility and move on.

3. Remember that the press may be worth it.

Even if you are thwarted in your ambush attempt, the bad press may be worth it. Undaunted following the lederhosen incident, Bavaria went on to stage an ambush at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Bavaria’s ads leading up to the event featured women in bright orange mini-dresses. At the World Cup, thirty-six women in the crowd wore bright orange Bavaria dresses.

They were evicted from the game and two were arrested on charges of organizing the ambush. The incident has received a lot of press, making Bavaria’s name known throughout marketing circles anyway. Everyone who has heard the story probably knows Bavaria was not the World Cup sponsor, but they also closely associate the two brands in their minds because of this incident.

4. Consult a professional.

Ambush marketing campaigns may have legal implications, and you will want skillful reputation representation online to manage any publicity to your brand’s benefit. Seek out a marketing adviser who can lead you to the best bang for your ambush budget.

Ambush Marketing Specialists

Let our team of advertising experts help you plan an ambush marketing plan. We have the creative talent and marketing experience to boost your brand recognition and connect with your ardent fans. Contact us today to learn what your next ambush marketing campaign might look like.