Despite widespread media attention to the escalating protests over China's political activities, marketers say they have not changed their plans to advertise during the Beijing Olympics this summer.
Last month, political activists turned out in force during the Olympic torch relay in the U.S. and Europe to protest China's rule in Tibet and its support of the Sudanese government, which is engaged in genocide in the Darfur region.
Activist groups have also stepped up their pressure on Olympic sponsors, calling on them to get more involved in human rights issues involving China.
For example, Dream for Darfur, a humanitarian group led by actress Mia Farrow, last month issued a report card on major Olympic sponsors, giving most of them failing grades for their lack of response to the situation in Darfur.
However, Olympic advertisers say the protests will not affect their marketing plans for the Beijing Games.
“Our plans are not changing at all,” said Deirdre Latour, a GE spokeswoman. “We are very committed to the Olympics, and we will be advertising. All of our plans are moving forward.”
GE is a worldwide partner of the Olympic Games and will be providing more than 335 products and infrastructure services to help stage the Beijing event, which is being held Aug. 8-24. It hopes to use the Olympics as a platform to generate at least $10 billion in sales in China by 2010.
AT&T Inc., another Olympic sponsor, also plans to move forward with its support of the Beijing Olympics and its marketing plans.
“AT&T is a proud sponsor of the United States Olympic team, and we will continue to support Team USA and its athletes as they pursue their Olympic dreams,” said Jenny Parker, an AT&T spokeswoman.
“We recognize and respect the rights of organizations to voice concerns and raise awareness of issues of importance to them. We look to statesmanship to address these issues and concerns as we continue to support our U.S. athletes.”
AT&T is the official telecommunications sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team and is using the Beijing Olympics as a showcase for its technology.
Visa Inc., a worldwide Olympic partner, last month issued a statement in response to criticism of Olympic sponsors by Dream for Darfur: “While we appreciate Dream for Darfur's efforts to bring attention to the situation, Visa believes a lasting resolution to the crisis can only be achieved through governmental and diplomatic channels and not by Olympic Games sponsors.”
Eastman Kodak Co., another worldwide Olympic partner, was one of the few corporations that received a high mark (B+) from Dream for Darfur for its efforts to take a stand on the issue.
In a letter to the United Nations dated Feb. 28, Gerard Meuchner, director of communications and public affairs at Kodak, wrote: “As we approach the next Olympic Games, we recognize the opportunity this event affords to galvanize public opinion. In the spirit of [former U.N.] Secretary-General [Kofi] Annan's words, I write to urge the U.N. to apply all its influence to put an end to the conflict in Sudan. Along with other Olympic sponsors, we share the belief that the U.N. is the organization best positioned to coordinate international efforts to end this horror.”
Kodak did not have further comment on the protests or their possible effect on its advertising plans.
It remains to be seen whether the protests will affect the decision of marketers that have yet to commit to the games. So far, ad inventory on the telecast of the Beijing Olympics is 75% sold, which is on track with past games, according to NBC Universal.
“I think there are a few issues that could impact advertisers' support of the Beijing Olympics,” said Jon Schaaf, VP-media at HSR Business to Business, Chicago. “No. 1, the obvious Tibet issue and the human rights violations, and No. 2, the lack of environmental regulations and all the pollution that is being pumped out of Beijing. These issues could play a role in making U.S.-based corporate sponsors think twice, especially companies whose corporate cultures are focused on equal opportunity, fair treatment and the green movement.”
However, he added, “That being said, the benefits of international branding on the world's most- watched stage will probably offset some of these concerns.”
Jim Gregory, CEO of branding agency CoreBrand, said that, so far, the protests have not had a significant impact on corporate sponsors' brand value through their association with the Olympics.
“If [the protests] sustain this level of intensity, where it's in the news all the time, it will have an impact [on brand image]. The last thing in the world a sponsor wants is that every time you look at the event, you think of protests.”
However, Gregory added, “Once the games start, everyone will focus on the games, and the sponsors will get their money's worth.”
This month, the Olympic torch relay will begin in China, moving on to Tibet in June. M