Director Steven Spielberg's decision last week to break with the Beijing Olympics over China's support of the Sudanese government is the first in what's likely to be a series of human-rights related headaches for the games' largest sponsors. Already, activist groups are using the games to spotlight the wreckage that is China's record on any number of human-rights issues.
Last week, a group called Dreams for Darfur sent a press release saying it plans "several high-profile campaigns to pressure the Olympic corporate sponsors to do more for Darfur, including protests at corporate headquarters and boycotting commercials during the games." It ended the missive with e-mail addresses and phone numbers of corporate-responsibility executives at Coca-Cola, General Electric, Microsoft and McDonald's, saying, "If you want to ask corporate sponsors if they will remain silent in the face of genocide in Darfur, the contact information is below."
So we asked a few. Here's a sampling of their positions.
Coca-Cola: "It's not the role of our company to directly involve ourselves in the internal policy decisions of sovereign nations. We do believe we can have a positive impact by our continued sponsorship of the games."
McDonald's: "We continue to feel strongly that the only real progress that can be made in Darfur is at the United Nations and government levels."
Finally, Anheuser-Busch: "The situation in Darfur is abhorrent, and we support efforts to bring awareness to this crisis in order to increase diplomatic discussions between governments within the United Nations. We have expressed our position on this topic with the International Olympic Committee."
All three, each of which rank among the Olympics' top dozen sponsors, said they continue to support the games and didn't indicate any changes in their marketing plans for what Nike President Charlie Denson called "the biggest sporting event in probably your or my lifetime," on a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts.
Staying friendly with China
But how their plans could be changed for them remains to be seen. Speaking out against China's spotty domestic record on speech, press and political freedoms, as activists demand, is a dicey proposition for marketers primarily focused on currying favor -- and market share -- in the world's largest developing market.
"Darfur is just a jumping-off point," said Minky Worden, media director of Human Rights Watch and author of the forthcoming "China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges." "The domestic situation there has been deteriorating in advance of the Olympics, and it's going to turn the spotlight there onto the sponsors."
Henk Campher, VP-corporate responsibility at Cone PR, said this should have been expected. But, he added, knowledge of China's issues doesn't mean advertisers shouldn't be involved in games there.
"If they declare they are not going to take part in the Olympics because they are being held in China, then companies start entering the political debate," he said.
Pressing for change
But that doesn't mean they won't be dragged in. Human Rights Watch, Ms. Worden said, contacted all 12 of the games' top-level sponsors and asked them to press China for reforms. "Not a single corporate sponsor has spoken out," she said.
The companies might try to explain it away with rainbows-and-unicorn-type references to teamwork and competition, but you don't have to be a complete cynic to acknowledge this is all about the chance to get at the massive untapped market that is China. Past Olympics have succeeded in helping sponsors gain local market share.
Pradeep Chintagunta, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, said that corporate reputation might end up being preserved by a tragic irony. China's very repressiveness actually diminishes the odds of an out-of-control demonstration that could take over the airwaves and mar the event.
"If you have open protests, there is a chance the brands get caught in the crossfire," he said. "But, in China, I doubt that will happen."