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ATLANTA GAMES CRAFT BARRIERS TO AMBUSHES THOUGH SPONSORS' CLUTTER MAY PLAY A ROLE

By Published on .

Organizers for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta are preparing for the most aggressive counterassault yet against ambushes of official sponsors.

Question is: Will anyone really want to ride the coattails of the sponsors' megabuck efforts tied to the Centennial Olympic Games?

Those Games are still more than a year away, but the hype has already begun. The first significant Olympic promotion-and it may be the biggest-hits in May, when Coca-Cola Co. will launch a massive effort, supported by $25 million-plus in media.

It's the commitment of so many dollars that makes official sponsors fret that rivals will tap into the Olympic cachet, without spending the cash to gain official status. But it's also that level of official activity that makes it unlikely that 1996 will see the sort of significant ambush activity that the likes of American Express Co. and Wendy's International executed in the past.

The expectation among many executives is that the marketplace will be so cluttered with Olympic efforts that it will be difficult for even a sponsor to effectively leverage its investment.

The Atlanta Games' $1.6 billion price tag is contributing to the clutter. Organizers originally planned to pay more that $600 million of that from sponsorship deals; $114 million would come from the International Olympic Committee, which signed 10 global partners to $40 million deals.

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games is crafting deals to bring in the rest. But the sales effort has slowed since quickly inking nine marketers to $40 million partnerships. Insiders expect ACOG will come up short in sponsorships, but say other areas like licensing will help it reach $1.6 billion.

ACOG is now chopping categories into subcategories and selling each for smaller prices. In automotive, General Motors Corp. signed a $10 million deal for the domestic car and truck segments.

IOC Director of Marketing Michael Payne said such subdividing is standard for a U.S. Olympics, given the interest, but other executives say the decision was driven by economic necessity.

Keeping its sponsors happy is a top priority for organizers. That means protection against ambushers-or "parasites," as the Olympics now call them.

"We feel `parasite' is a better term," Mr. Payne said, "because these companies are really feeding on the good will of the Olympics."

The IOC and ACOG have already sent letters to ad agencies and media outlets, warning them not to execute ambush programs or accept media dollars from them. If that fails, the IOC and ACOG will embarrass ambushers with ad campaigns or even sue them.

The Atlanta organizers have also hired a director of sponsor protection, Bill Fergueson, to head up an anti-ambush staff-the first time an Olympic organizing committee has taken such a measure.

In the past, ambushers have been defined as those marketers that use Olympic logos and trademarks without paying for them. But marketers are finding ways around that, by either using former Olympic athletes and imagery in ads or using phrases that suggest but are not trademark terms of the Games.

The Olympics have now broadened their definition of ambush marketing to include "gray ambushing," and this is backed by legal precedent. Last summer, NCAA marketing agency Host Communications won a suit against Kellogg Co., which ambushed NCAA partner General Mills in a promo offering winners a trip to "the college basketball championship."

With the procedures in place, "You can do some [ambush marketing] on the surface, but you can't really do it deeply. Our experience is that where you get the benefit is in the ability to make use of that relationship in depth," said Philip Guarascio, general manager-marketing and advertising for GM's North American Operations, who promised an aggressive, integrated marketing effort tied to the Olympics.

Raymond Serafin and Jeanne Whalen contributed to this story.

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