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The Summer Olympics are still more than five months away. But new sponsorship regulations mean advertisers could soon be rushing Olympic ads into market at a pace that would make Usain Bolt jealous.
The sprint began last summer when the United States Olympic Committee announced a rule change that allows non-Olympic sponsors to run ads starring Olympic athletes during the games. That right was previously reserved for sponsors. But to qualify, non-sponsors must run their marketing "continuously starting no later than March 27." As a result, ads starring Olympians could hit the market soon, well before the Olympic marketing season typically begins.
"We will see more athlete marketing much earlier than we are used to seeing it because of this rule," said Jim Andrews, senior VP of marketing for sponsorship consultancy IEG.
Previously, the so-called Rule 40 guidelines barred non-sponsors from running ads featuring Olympic athletes during a blackout period that lasted from several days before the opening ceremonies to a few days after the games ended. So, for instance, Subway endorser Michael Phelps could not appear in Subway ads during the 2012 Olympics because the sandwich chain is not an Olympic sponsor.
But under the new regulations, non-sponsors can request Rule 40 waivers from the USOC allowing them to run ads during the blackout period. This year that period runs from July 27 to Aug. 24. The games run from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21 in Brazil.
Sponsors still have certain advantages, like the ability to use trademarked Olympic phrases and imagery in ads. As a result, ads from non-sponsors will be more generic. For instance, non-sponsors are barred from using phrases such as "Olympic" or "Olympiad." And phrases such as "Rio/Rio de Janeiro," "Gold," "Games" and "Victory" cannot be used in ads "in such a way as to imply an association between, on the one hand, the participant and, on the other hand, the Olympic Games," according to the rules.
Still, the rule change creates an opening for non-sponsors to seize on the Olympic conversation when it is most relevant -- during the games -- even if they can't explicitly say "Olympics."
Consider Under Armour, which in late February launched a new global campaign featuring members of the U.S. women's gymnastics team. The brand, which competes fiercely with Olympic sponsor Nike, plans to run the campaign during the Olympics. While Adrienne Lofton, senior VP of global brand marketing for Under Armour, said the brand would have released the campaign in February regardless of the new rule, "the expansion of Rule 40 just helped us tell the story longer." The new ads build on the "Rule Yourself" campaign that launched last fall.
Under Armour is not a USOC sponsor but has deals with several teams, including USA Gymnastics and USA Boxing. Under Armour endorsers who are expected to compete in the Olympics include Mr. Phelps, golfer Jordan Spieth, basketball star Stephen Curry and soccer player Kelly O'Hara, among others.
"We have a huge roster of Olympic athletes that are going to tell their 'Rule Yourself' stories through digital and social. We plan to honor them before they go into the games, during the games and after," Ms. Lofton said. "It allows us to be part of the conversation when it is hot and when that sport, or that win, or that moment, is most relevant. We are happy to see the relaxing of that rule and we are going to take advantage of it."
Under Armour on Tuesday will hold an Olympic-themed event in its hometown of Baltimore. It plans to unveil a short film featuring Mr. Phelps and show off uniforms it designed for the gymnastics team.
PowerBar, another non-sponsor, is also planning to run ads during the games. The brand has relationships with a few Olympic athletes, including men's marathon runner Meb Keflezighi and women's marathon runner Desiree Linden. "We'll certainly be using them more as we approach the Olympics," said Lance Palumbo, the brand's director of sports marketing.
The USOC changed its Rule 40 regulations in early June, following guidelines issued earlier in the year by the International Olympic Committee.
The IOC came under fire during the 2012 Olympics when several athletes used social media to demand reform so they could promote brands they are affiliated with during the games, even if the brands are not sponsors. Among the images that gained traction was a picture American hurdler Dawn Harper posted on Twitter that showed her mouth covered with tape that had 'Rule 40' written on it.
"At the end of the day, it's exploitation, and when people hear the facts, they'll be outraged just like we the athletes are," Olympic sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross stated in a New York Times article in 2012.
When the USOC announced the rule change in June, the organization stated that it was "made with athlete input in mind as a way to help athletes potentially generate additional financial support as they chase their Olympic dreams." The USOC on March 6 will hold a four-day Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles in which dozens of athletes are scheduled to appear.
The Rule 40 changes have the potential to cause some complications for current sponsors, which are losing their monopoly on running ads starring Olympic athletes during the games.
"Everybody is watching it closely … and really relying on the governing body to ensure that everyone's rights are protected both on the official sponsor side and the non-sponsor side," said Mary Scott, president of sports and brand experience at United Entertainment Group, a sports and entertainment agency.
Ad Age reached out to a number of USOC sponsors. Coca-Cola Co., Nike, Anheuser-Busch InBev and McDonald's all declined to comment.
Procter & Gamble, which holds a worldwide Olympic sponsorship, stated that "we trust the IOC and [national Olympic committees] will continue to protect the rights of P&G and other top sponsors." Kellogg Co. stated that "we will work closely with the USOC to maximize our sponsorship as Rule 40 continues to evolve and will monitor the significance and impact the new rules will have across the sponsorship landscape."
Kellogg competitor General Mills last week announced it had signed Olympic swimming star Missy Franklin to the "Team Wheaties family" under a year-long contract that began in February.
General Mills spokesman Mike Siemienas declined to comment about whether the marketer would run ads including Olympic athletes during the games. "We do not discuss our future marketing activities," he said.
According to the new rules, non-sponsors had to enter their initial campaign submissions to the USOC by Jan. 27. Submissions had to include a media schedule "demonstrating that the campaign will be in market and run continuously starting no later than four months in advance of the applicable period (March 27)," according to a USOC web site. And while initial submissions did not have to include all proposed tactics, "each and every final tactic will require a waiver."
"We look at campaigns in their entirety and in their intent," Lisa Baird, chief marketing officer for the United States Olympic Committee, said in an interview. "I want clear-sailing for the athletes. I really, really want them to not be worried about this."
When it comes to social media, the USOC treats it "like any other media channel today," Ms. Baird said. The protected Olympic words, images and videos cannot be used by non-sponsors in any content regardless of the platform.
Chris Console, a director for Burson-Marsteller's fan experience team, said he does not foresee non-sponsors hijacking social media attention during the games from official sponsors since much of the content has to be pre-approved.
But grey areas could emerge, he said. "If you submitted your content, but then there's something very unique that happens in real-time in an event or competition, are you going to have the flexibility to nimbly move on the fly? Is that permissible?"
Marketers -- and their Olympic endorsers -- will find out soon enough.
Contributing: Jessica Wohl, Jack Neff