Despite calls from some human rights activists, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia to protest the nation's anti-gay laws. President Barack Obama made that clear recently, saying that although he is offended by the legislation, "we've got a bunch of Americans that are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed."
And although corporate sponsors are getting pressured to take action, most companies have issued fairly tepid statements so far, with the possible exception of General Electric, which told BuzzFeed that "we expect the IOC [International Olympic Committee] to uphold human rights in every aspect of the Games."
But what if the U.S. did stay home? And what if sponsors stayed away? One only needs to look back to 1980, when President Jimmy Carter enforced a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union failed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The decision forced sponsors to curtail aggressive marketing plans. Coca-Cola, headquartered in President Carter's home state of Georgia, took one of the biggest hits. The marketer had won exclusive rights to supply soft drinks to the games.
As Ad Age reported in 1978, the pact was "especially important to Coca-Cola since rival Pepsi-Cola scored a coup five years ago as the first U.S. consumer product to be sold in the Soviet Union." And back in the states, Coke had already begun Olympic themed-advertising by 1979, with this spot, featuring Mike Lookinland, better known as the actor who played Bobby Brady on 'The Brady Bunch'. Sort of like on the TV show, the ad's character has a big family -- who all come to send him off at the train station as he goes to compete in the games. But the best part of the send off is having "A Coke and a Smile" with a lovely young lady.
But once the U.S. backed out of the Olympics, so did Coke, ending its planned sponsorship activities. The company's Minute Maid brand, which had also planned marketing, shifted gears too, but sought to "keep the Olympic flame from dying," as Ad Age put it at the time. Promotions included awarding U.S. Olympic athletes inscribed silver plates designating them as "America's finest athletes of 1980."
NBC, which had planned extensive coverage of the games, also took a big hit. The boycott "could not have come at a more inopportune time for NBC," as it had been banking on the Olympics to help lift it from the ratings cellar, Time magazine reported in a month before the games began in 1980. But with the boycott, the network canceled its coverage, suffering what Ad Age then described as "Olympic-size ad losses" of more than $30 million in lost ad sales. What did viewers get instead? Programming included a rerun of the movie "Airport '77" and the debut of a short-lived show called "Speak Up, America."
But all was not lost: NBC recouped 90% of the $87 million it spent on broadcast rights and construction costs thanks to its insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, which cost the network roughly $5 million in premiums, Ad Age reported at the time.