SEARCH 2000 Games

Wednesday, September 13, 2000
No Pepsi. Coke: The Olympic balance between sponsorship, restraint

 SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- They seem quite ordinary, these TVs deployed across Olympic Park's press center. But look closer: What's that where the Samsung logo should be? A strip of carefully placed black electrical tape with a tale to tell.

 True, Samsung is an Olympic partner that invested millions in the 2000 Summer Games. But the Korean company's marketing rights extend only to the "wireless technology category."

 The "TV-video-audio equipment category," it seems, belongs solely to Panasonic.

 There's more. Bring a 12-pack of Pepsi to the Olympic Park entrance and you might get turned away. Coke might get upset, explains an armed police officer. And put away that American Express card. If the continuous audio commercials on the Visa ATMs don't persuade you, store clerk Libby Marriott will. "We can't accept it," she says. "The Olympics, you know."

 The International Olympic Committee, navigating the epoch of the corporate sponsor, finds itself in murky waters as it juggles conflicting priorities: maintaining an aura of noncommercialism while mollifying sponsors who expect a serious return for their millions.

 "It has become increasingly apparent," the IOC acknowledged this week, "that if there were no Olympic sponsors there could be no Olympic Games."

 But the Olympics' strength lies in its reputation of purity, which itself must be marketed. That creates a paradox: Though the bills must be paid, the appearance of no marketing is the IOC's most important marketing technique.

 During the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, an explosion of swap-meet-style commercialism clogged traffic and enraged the IOC. The chaos led to tightened rules ensuring that sponsors' giant logos were what dominated the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

 This time around, Sydney has passed regulations to prevent creeping "ambush marketing." Only paying sponsors will be allowed access to ad space around Olympic venues during coming weeks. And the city's Olympic Arrangements Act provides heavy fines for non-sanctioned advertising near venues.

 Such restrictions are becoming more common as the corporate landscape bleeds into the physical one and companies divvy up sponsorship territory. After Pepsi signed an exclusive deal to sell soda on the Penn State campus in 1992, for example, product sponsors began courting colleges, local governments, even school districts.

 For the Olympics, it was probably inevitable in an age when even "amateur" athletes are becoming brand names. And erecting stadiums, laying new roads and generally refitting a city for Olympic Games is not cheap.

 "They have to uphold the ideal. That's their positioning," says Lawrence Ang, a marketing expert at Macquarie University in Sydney. "But the reality is, you still have to get the thing built."

 Once it is built, companies that chipped in up to $55 million apiece have expectations.

 Thus, Olympic visitors and media are invited to meet Ironbark Jim and his performing sheepdog Twist, courtesy of Woolmark, official supplier of formal uniforms to the Australian Olympic team. They can learn about Bonlac, the official dairy supplier, and Taraflex, the official supplier of indoor sports surfaces.

 They can visit the Olympic Superstore, a cavernous cornucopia of logo clothing and trinketry that bills itself as "a high-capacity, one-stop shopping experience for Olympic spectators" -- dealing only in approved merchandise, of course.

 They can mail packages from Olympic Park -- but only through UPS. They can dine in a giant field of tables, chairs and awnings festooned with the Coke logo. And McDonald's reigns supreme: A bacon-and-egg sandwich called a "damper" was removed from one Olympic Park restaurant's menu, The Sydney Morning Herald reported Wednesday. The problem? The damper resembled the fabled Egg McMuffin.

 Samsung doesn't seem to mind the muzzling of logos on its TVs, which it supplied to Sydney organizers to supplement Panasonic models. "It doesn't bother us," said Jay Kim, public relations manager of Samsung Olympic Projects. And, he adds a bit gleefully, "they can't associate Panasonic phones with the Olympic games."

 The Sydney organizing committee has a brand-protection manager and squads that troll the grounds looking for ambush marketing, says Sharon Hobson, a marketing official for the committee. She says officials at security checkpoints have discretion to permit or reject individual food items like, say, a Pepsi 12-pack.

 But officials say they're trying not to go overboard.

 "You do need a sense of perspective," says IOC marketing director Michael Payne. "You're not going to be going around closing down the local bar that is suddenly putting an Olympic celebration out front."

 The personal Pepsi prohibitions, he allows, are a bit extreme. And, some say, such measures could produce a backlash over time.

 "Taping over televisions?" says Jens Bang, a Massachusetts branding expert who developed Reebok's awards suit for the 1992 games in Barcelona. "That's the point where consumers begin to sit back and say, 'Wait a minute -- isn't this going a little bit too far?"'

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