The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games is nearly upon us, and so too the big drive towards advertisement omnipresence. This is the sort of event that usually has the sponsors and advertisers wringing their hands in glee, but this time a certain insouciance has found itself on the faces of execs and corporate press officers as the media coverage for the Games takes a sickly turn. In the past year big names have weighed in over Putin’s political diatribe, the brunt of which concerns the quality of life of Russia’s LGBT citizens who may now feel an ugly oppression creeping in over legislation banning them from effectively speaking out about their own sexuality. And with calls for a boycott, or a resituating of the Games to a more accepting locale, beleaguered sponsors who have suffered the backlash of association with the event have taken the position of least responsibility, constituting a struthious-like process of collectively burying their heads in the sand.
How have the Sochi 2014 corporate partners reacted?
At the present time we have yet to see many of the major Olympic partners’ Sochi 2014 advertising campaigns, including big players McDonalds and Coca-Cola (notwithstanding the Russian only coverage of the Coca-Cola Torch Relay). The only truly global campaign to have started is the Proctor and Gamble ‘Raising an Olympian’ campaign. This is an extension of the London 2012 Olympics advertising campaign, reprising a reflection on family-hood, motherhood, and what it takes for a parent to bring up an Olympian. This Olympiad’s intake includes USA’s Lindsay Vonn, France’s Jason Lamy-Chappuis, Germany’s Felix Neureuther, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna and many, many more. For such a simple idea it takes on a surprisingly complex context given such a strained atmosphere in the run up to February. What’s seems so effective, and what is appealing about these adverts, is the diversity and range of their sportsmen and women, coming from varied backgrounds, difficulties and hardships, as well as nationalities, which reflects the scope and breadth of their prospective audience and the multiplicity of views and values within that audience. Within the great variety of videos we see not only numerous sports at play but numerous narratives too. The focus on storytelling, and on the pain and effort of those who are competing, can be one way to effectively break the political narrative by re-telling the story as a story about the individual.
So while the Proctor and Gamble message is attempting to tread carefully around the political overspill many other advertisers have so resisted the tacit acceptance of association. Yet, perhaps they shouldn’t be so scared, engagement may well be one of the best ways of forcing debate on the issue. Fears that any such display of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ might incur immigration restrictions, or even deportation during the Games, have been deflected in a recent speech given by by President Putin after much pressure from LGBT groups for clarity on the issue. This leaves advertisers in a rather stronger position than previously, knowing that Putin does not wish to damage the bottom-line at Sochi. Though it is hardly an acceptance of the negative feelings towards this issue – indeed, he seems to employ the tired “but some of my best friends are gay” line of reasoning, which would be comical if it weren’t so depressing. However, this still doesn’t allay some of the fears of advertisers associating themselves with this controversial Winter Games. In the following BloombergTV video, WebiMax CEO Ken Wisnefski documents the tribulations of NBC Universal (American rights’ holders of the Sochi Games) and how advertisers on their platform might mitigate some of the associations of sponsoring during the Winter Games.
Advertisers will have to make tough choices
As Ken Wisnefski suggests, most advertisers will still prefer the reach and exposure that the incredible audience figures (NBC put it in the billions) can draw in, indeed, according to Forbes, NBC Universal have already forecast profits on advertising revenue.
Historically, such as in Beijing, sponsors have managed to combat the negative impact of being associated with an autocratic regime like Russia or China by, as Wisnefski says, being “so focused around the athletes [that] I think many companies can kind of side-track a lot of what’s going on.” If advertisers can train their audience upon the athlete then compelling narratives can be told without having to be drawn into political debate. This will lessen the negative effects of association while positively binding them to the efforts of the athletes. In time, I suspect we will see multiple variations on this theme, from Omega focusing on the impact of accurate timing (see their London 2012 advertisement, ‘Start Me Up’), to McDonalds’ family-oriented narrative.
Currently, with the phlegmatic-jock-cum-KGB-tough-guy Putin in charge, advertisers will be wary of demonstrating any particularly strong feelings towards the Sochi Games, as it will be seen to give global acceptance towards Russian parliament legislature. Yet either way the major partners who are locked in to advertisement, and those who wish to attain massive global reach through advertisement during the Games, will have to stomach consumer’s ill-feelings towards Putin’s regime and try to negate the negatives.
In all, it will be interesting to see how advertisement attempts to mitigate the effect of negative press in the build-up to the Olympics, and how the major partners will focus on positive associations to reach around and neutralise the political dialogue. We will be keeping a close eye on this evolving event and will report back as February rears its politically complex head.
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