16th July 2012
Of all the head-to-heads scheduled across the Olympic and Paralympic games, which one will be the big story to come out of London 2012? Perhaps it will be the 100m face-off between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, or Jessica Ennis vs Tatyana Chernova in the Heptathlon, or even Oscar Pistorious vs Jerome Singleton?
Although these and many other high profile confrontations, have great importance for the athletes and spectators alike ; in my view the main event will be the confrontation between the Olympic authorities – and Social Media.
Taking nothing away from the endeavours of individual athletes, this is the main event because it may impact on the future funding and therefore the future success of the Olympic Games. More than this, the face-off between the Olympic authorities and social media, is part of a much bigger debate about censorship and freedom of speech, which is apparent across the world and in many other walks of life
The Olympic regulators are motivated to protect the profile and status of their official sponsors, and with global sponsors paying $100m each, it is in their interests to do so. However, attempts to stop unauthorised brands from piggybacking Olympic events for commercial benefit, have had mixed success in the past, and the stories of successful guerrilla marketing campaigns are legion.
Recent research by Global Language Monitor indicates that more than half the top 50 companies associated with the Games, are not official sponsors. Subway, FedEx and Nike have all been running Olympic themed campaigns despite some of their closest competitors being official Olympic sponsors – McDonalds,UPS and Adidas respectively.
The tradition of guerrilla marketing is a long and successful one – remember when Linford Christie got a jump on the official sponsors Reebok, by wearing contact lenses with a Puma Logo, at Atlanta 1996 ?
To protect their sponsors and the future value of their brands, there will be an Olympic advertising blackout for non-sponsors, in place from 18th July to the 15th August. Non sponsors will not be able to use athletes in their advertising or mention the Olympics, whilst individual athletes will be punished if they mention unauthorised brands. The social media restriction extends to the approx. 700,000 Olympic helpers who have been told not to disclose any information about athletes, or their locations. There will also be monitoring of official and other social channels , to ensure that individual users do not push out commercial messages, either individually or in concert with a brand . This all seems a bit ’1984′ to me, rather than ’2012′ – we are ALL being watched.
Policing unauthorised activity this time round, is a problem for London, in a way that it wasn’t in Beijing. The reason for this is the growth of social media. At the time of the 2008 Olympics, Facebook had approx 100m users and Twitter had 2m. Currently Facebook has 900m and Twitter 140m users.
Social, is a very large and still relatively new communications environment that the authorities are seeking to police, and it is far from clear that they will be successful. On 10th July it was announced that LOCOG and Twitter were still in 11th hour talks regarding the use of Twitter as a social ambush channel, despite these talks starting in March. The IOC’s regulations (for non-sponsors) around social media sharing are as follows –
1. Brands cannot associate themselves with the Olympics.
2. You must comply with the Olympic Association Right (OAR) and London Olympic Association Right (LOAR)
3. Provide the facts and take a journalistic approach to avoid violating restrictions.
4. Avoid marketing campaigns framed around the Olympics.
The broader issue at stake here is one of freedom of expression in the digital space. The growth in digital connectedness and social media has created a massive global community where people (and brands) can share information; and the problem here is exacerbated because those who play or who are interested in sports, are especially social in their behaviour
What can the Olympic authorities really do about this, and if this increasingly social digital environment is not controllable, where does this leave the Olympics as an attractive event for brands to sponsor?
In actual fact unauthorised social media activity and associated guerrilla marketing may be a good thing for the Games. If the events are devalued from the sponsor’s perspective, it may mean a return to a less commercial Olympic games and more traditional olympian spirit. Does the IOC really need the billions it receives in sponsorship revenues – the games worked fine in the early 20th Century before big money came on board.
It’s a controversial message, and not one the IOC or big business will want to hear, but it may be broadly welcome nonetheless.
Nick Hammond @digital_filter.