Sochi 2014: The Most Dangerous Games for Advertisers


ADOTAS – Here we are. 2013 is in the rearview mirror. The end of the year is so predictable it’s almost depressing. You hear Wham!’s “Last Christmas” way more than you want to. “Love, Actually” plays on a loop all over cable. And you’re pelted with year-end lists and year-in-review pieces. How sick are you of those? Right! Me, too!

So, let’s look ahead to 2014, a year that brings us something that only comes around once every 1,460 days or so: the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The Olympics are not just a massive spectacle of sport, but of marketing as well.

While the Winter Olympics can be dangerous for the athletes, it’s usually a happy place for sponsors and advertisers. An event full of feel-good stories, celebrations of amazing accomplishments, teeming with young, beautiful athletes wrapped up in wholesome American pride.

Not so much with Sochi 2014, which, because of the controversy surrounding Russia’s anti-gay legislation, is shaping up to be the most dangerous Olympics for marketers.

Let’s take a look at some trends which will shape one of the planet’s biggest annual – or, I should say quadrennial – sports and marketing events:

Big Bets: Russia, NBC & Sponsors

For every entity involved with the Olympics – from the host country, to sponsors, to athletes – the monetary investments and the stakes are enormous. Let’s take a look at Sochi 2014 by the numbers:

  • $50 billion: What it’s costing Russia to host the Olympics, making them the most expensive ever and more than five times original estimates (according to the Financial Times).
  • $33 billion: The amount invested by sponsors such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Electric, Visa, Samsung and more.
  • 2,500: Approximate number of Galaxy Note 3 phones Samsung is giving out to every Olympic athlete in a clever promotion that will undoubtedly feature the popular smartphone lighting up the opening and closing ceremonies.
  • $900: Cost of a Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
  • $800 million: Amount of ad sales sold by NBC Universal – the most ever.
  • 1,539Hours of coverage NBC Universal will present from Russia across NBC, NBCSN, MSNBC, CNBC and USA Network.
  • 1,000: Hours of coverage will offer of live streaming coverage, along with event rewinds and video highlights.
  • 20 billion: The number of media impressions P&G claims the company had for its advertising during the 2012 London Olympics.
  • $500 millionThe estimated amount of sales lift P&G enjoyed to its brands as a result of this advertising (according to P&G).
  • 404,685: The number of people who have signed’s petition for Olympics sponsor Coca-Cola to publicly condemn Russia’s controversial anti-gay legislation.
  • 500,000:’s goal number for the petition.
  • 0: The number of advertisers or sponsors who have dropped out of the Sochi Olympics in protest of Russia’s anti-gay stance.
  • 100%: The number who are really, really worried about potential backlash in the face of negative publicity or in the event of a violent crackdown by Russian authorities on protesters during the games.

The ‘Danger Games’

And those last few numbers sum up why the Chicago Tribune quoted one marketer as calling the Sochi Olympics “the danger Games”.

Forbes presents a strong breakdown of the kinds of pressure gay rights organizations are putting on major Olympics sponsors such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Samsung.

In the piece, Forbes quotes the International Olympic Committee’s marketing commission chairman, Gerhard Heiberg, as saying, “I have heard a lot from the sponsors, especially the American sponsors, of what they are afraid might happen. I think this could ruin a lot for all of us.”

Many sponsors are already saying the right things to inoculate their brands from negative association of any possible anti-gay crackdowns. The Forbes pieces cites a quite artful statement from Coca-Cola:

“We do not condone human rights abuses, intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world,” Coke said. “As a sponsor since 1928, we believe the Olympic Games are a force for good that unite people through a common interest in sports.”

But, in the face of continued truculence from Vladimir Putin and the Russian government on the anti-gay issue, grassroots online protests and social media advocacy pages continue to pop up looking to exert pressure on the true fuel of the Olympic flame – advertisers.

Crisis = Opportunity

The Motley Fool takes an excellent look at both the crisis and opportunity facing Olympics sponsors in the event of potential ugly confrontations with gay rights protesters broadcast to a global TV audience, which Kenneth Roth, president of Human Rights Watch, thinks is likely.

“It’s easy to imagine a confrontation taking place on global television. It’s almost certain that athletes will flaunt their homosexuality or support for gay rights,” he told BuzzFeed.

In this Oreos-Super Bowl-tweet era of rapid social marketing response, The Motley Fool lays out an interesting scenario to ponder for advertisers who may – or may not – have already contemplated the potential opportunity to arise from a gay rights protesting crisis:

If something very public and very newsworthy were to happen, how should the sponsors respond?

Obviously, the companies would issue all the usual appropriate statements: that’s a given. But would they go further and actually walk the walk instead of talking the talk?

Would they, for example, release ads showing their support for gay rights? Picture it: an Olympian wins the gold medal, kisses his boyfriend, then they each crack open a Coke. Or a soccer mom drives the kids home, dumps their uniforms into the washer with some Tide Pods, and goes upstairs for dinner with the kids…and their other mom (and maybe other mom brought home some McDonald’s).

And that, to me, is the most interesting thing to ponder about these “danger Games”: Are the big bucks, big brand advertisers ready to take a stand in favor of gay rights on a global stage? Have they calculated that it’s in their financial interest? Are they staffing rapid-reaction advertising ‘war rooms’ full of creatives and copywriters ready to craft real-time, contextual ads across digital platforms at a moment’s notice?

Also, is reacting to what may or may not transpire regarding protests in Russia an opportunity for non-Olympics sponsors as well? After all, Oreo’s parent company, Nabisco, certainly wasn’t a Super Bowl sponsor. But the little chocolate cookie with the vanilla filling stole the spotlight when the lights went off in New Orleans last February.

Are the 2014 “danger Games” providing your brand with an opportunity to counter-market based on potentially politically and culturally sensitive events as they transpire? For all marketers, is this a crisis? Or an opportunity?



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