Construction delays, terrorism jitters and a steroid scandal that has made advertisers leery of associating their brand with cheats have conspired to turn what is usually a 17-day brand-enhancing extravaganza that buoys TV ratings into a major marketing challenge.
The steroid scandals leave the Olympics with a depleted lineup of big name stars. Worse still for the ratings, the Aug. 13-29 Games begin 15 days after the Democratic National Convention ended and finish one day before the Republican National Convention starts, leaving some to speculate if a tightly contested election will steal the Games' usual thunder.
"I have to believe some of the blue-chip companies that are TOP [The Olympic Partnership] sponsors are wondering if they're going to get their money's worth," said David Carter, president of the Los Angeles-based marketing firm Sports Business Group.
Eleven companies serve as TOP sponsors, paying an average of $75 million per four-year cycle to market the Olympics worldwide.
"The Olympics are, and will always be, an important vehicle for us," said a marketing chief for one of the U.S. Olympic Committee's 18 corporate sponsors. "Are there concerns this particular year? Of course. Do we have faith in the security that's been put in place? Of course. If there is anything we can do, no matter how small, to help the process along, we're going to do it. But when it comes to the Olympics, we believe there is a big end result there."
The end result is eyeballs. More than 185 million people watched NBC's coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics from Sydney, and the network won 103 of a possible 106 prime-time hours over 17 nights.
But will NBC produce this year? Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, said the network will make a "significant profit" on the $793 million it paid for broadcast rights to the 2004 Games. NBC is 96% sold out of commercial time and less than $50 million from its goal of $1 billion in advertising, generated from an estimated 10,000 spots it will run over 1,210 hours of coverage on the main network, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, USA Network and Telemundo.
Whether it can produce the 14.5 rating it is promising advertisers remains to be seen. Mr. Ebersol did not discuss make-goods in a conference call last month, but NBC did say it has a plan in place if the Games are disrupted by terrorism. In fact, it has had such a plan since 1972, when it broadcast the Winter Olympics that year and later watched as the 1972 Summer Games were disrupted by the massacre of Jewish athletes in Munich.
While no marketers or sponsors have backed out, some are clearly addressing the apprehensions by downplaying the presence of their American-based companies, scaling back on events in Athens and using ad campaigns that are less jingoistic.
"What you're seeing is more sponsors being subtle in their on-site promotion," said Visa spokesman Michael Rolnick.
"The one aspect that is a material change is the junkets, or the opportunities that advertisers take to bring people and customers to events and create ancillary events around the Olympics," said Doug Wood, advertising law attorney at Reed Smith Hall Dickler, New York. "We're just not seeing anywhere near as much as that in the past. There clearly is a trend to not do anything at venue."
Eastman-Kodak Co. has scaled back the bright colors of its employee uniforms so as not to attract any extra attention; Coca-Cola's more than 2,000 guests in Athens are mostly Europeans, not Americans, and are staying at an undisclosed hotel; and even NBC has brought some of its most prized clients to a junket to, of all places, Bermuda.
"It's brand management, or brand protection," Mr. Wood said. "The last thing marketers want is to see their logo ablaze in an incident."
Still, many of the world's biggest and best-known marketers are leveraging their Olympic sponsorships as usual and in a variety of ways.
McDonald's Corp., one of the TOP sponsors, is ramping up its advertising as it looks to increase visibility of its "I'm Lovin' It" tagline. The company said isn't worried about being labeled an American firm.
"TOP carries with it worldwide rights, so we work with a lot of national Olympic committees," said Jackie Woodward, VP-global brand business. "It is not an American brand and certainly not an American brand in Athens. It's a global brand with wide tentacles."
Visa International breaks a third commercial this week featuring U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, arguably the most marketable American athlete heading into the Games (AA, March 29).
"We've approached these Games no different than any other set of Games or any other set of athletes," said Michael Lynch, Visa's senior VP-event and sponsorship marketing. "We have used, and will continue to use, Michael in our advertising, promotion, point of sale and other ways."
Adidas-Salomon has already introduced three Olympic-related commercials featuring legendary athletes Jesse Owens, Nadia Comaneci and Haile Gebrselassie under its "Impossible Is Nothing" tagline. Adidas has also built a vertical, 100-meter track on the side of a building in both Hong Kong and Osaka in an Olympic-related live outdoor effort it's calling "The Impossible Sprint."
the biggest stakes
But perhaps the biggest investors in the Olympics are the car companies.
General Motors Corp., with separate U.S. team and broadcast deals, is the largest Olympics' advertiser on the NBC Universal TV networks with more than 400 ad units during the Games. Chevrolet is GM's lead brand with more than 200 units. Plus, Chevrolet has 170 units on Telemundo for Hispanic spots from Accentmarketing, Miami.
Chevrolet will break 10 commercials from Interpublic's Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich. on the Games. Kim Kosak, general advertising director at the brand, said its buy is 10 times the normal prime-time weight for a two-week period. She declined to give details.
BMW of North America said it has 200-plus national spots on NBC and its properties during the Games. A trio of new spots in the pool introduce "the new voice of BMW" in the U.S., actress Patricia Clarkson, said Pat McKenna, marketing manager of the brand. Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, handles.
Mazda North American Operations said it has 12 slots and breaks its first full-line spot to show off its 10-model lineup. Robert Davis, senior VP-marketing and product development, said he wants the commercial from independent Doner, Southfield, Mich., to expand Mazda's awareness and explain its positioning.
As for non-sponsors who specialize in ambush marketing of big sporting events-hello, Nike!-take heed: The Athens Organizing Committee appointed a special task force to keep an eye on ambush marketers, with fines as high as 50,000 euros.
contributing: jean halliday