The Olympics

Thanks to USOC Rules, Ads Hit a Bump on the Road to [Redacted]

Non-Sponsoring Brands of the Rio Games Say Restrictive Rules Result in Non-Relevant Work

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Gatorade secured a waiver to use Olympians in its ads.
Gatorade secured a waiver to use Olympians in its ads. 

It's not often that marketers call their own ads generic and nonrelevant. But that's exactly how women's running apparel company Oiselle described one of its campaigns after the United States Olympic Committee got through with it.

The Seattle-based marketer is among hundreds of brands testing new USOC rules that allow non-sponsors to run ads starring Olympic athletes during the games, which begin Aug. 5 in Brazil. But to qualify, ads starring Olympians had to be in market and run continuously starting March 27. And the ads could not use a plethora of USOC-protected words, like "Olympic."

"Rio," "gold," "games," and "victory" also can't be used in any way that implies a connection between the athlete and the games.

For Oiselle, that was a little bit too much to take. So while the company got its campaign approved by the USOC after some back and forth, it decided not to put the ads in market. The resulting creative, which used Olympians like track and field athlete Kate Grace, was "generic and non-relevant" and "not effective enough to justify the cost," Oiselle CEO Sally Bergesen said in a blog post.

The changes to the so-called Rule 40 regulations were made last year in response to complaints by athletes that the International Olympic Committee was preventing them from promoting their sponsors during the games unless those brands were officially backing the Olympics as well.

But the USOC has to walk a tightrope: It cannot afford to dilute the value of the official sponsorship rights that companies such as Procter & Gamble, Visa, Nike, McDonald's and Coca-Cola Co. pay big bucks to obtain.

Under the new, relaxed rules, non-sponsoring brands could seek waivers from the USOC earlier this year to run ads starring athletes during a blackout period from July 27 though Aug. 24, three days after the Olympics end. Previously, only sponsors could run ads using Olympians in the blackout period. The USOC has declined to say which brands got approvals, citing confidentiality. Lisa Baird, the USOC's chief marketing officer, said "hundreds" of companies applied and the "overwhelming majority were approved."

Several non-sponsoring brands reached by Ad Age gave the new rules mixed reviews. Gatorade, Under Armour and Wheaties are among the marketers that secured waivers for ads starring Olympians during the games. The "USOC has been great to work with," said a spokeswoman for Gatorade, which is using Usain Bolt in ads. "The process has been efficient and collaborative."

But other marketers complained that the USOC remains too restrictive. New Balance, which is not a sponsor, won approval only to use "generic athlete stories and business-as-usual storytelling in our marketing campaigns," a spokeswoman said. "We are proud to have more than 70 global athletes qualify for the Summer Games and we continue to find the IOC's Rule 40 extremely challenging to work with as a brand who just wants to celebrate the many amazing achievements of our hardworking global athletes."

Sports brand Brooks also sought a waiver, "but we weren't prepared to share the level of detail USOC asked from us in order for us to get one," according to the company. Nuun, which sells electrolyte-enhanced drink tablets and has six Rio-bound athletes on its roster, didn't even try. "There's a plethora of words you can't say," said Nuun CEO Kevin Rutherford, citing as examples "medal" and "Rio."

"These are generic words and you can't say them," Mr. Rutherford said. "Do we not think we've pushed the boundaries too far?"

Ms. Baird said she is "empathetic that other companies want to use our brand because it is so appealing." But she added that the USOC must protect its intellectual property because the organization relies on sponsorship revenue to fuel its operations. "We raise hundreds of millions of dollars for athletes that way," she said. "We are not government-funded."

Larry Mann, exec VP at sports marketing agency Revolution, said brands can get an Olympic boost even if they can't use the word "Olympics." Consumers are loyal to athletes, not organizations, Mr. Mann argued. Even with the restrictions "you still have an image of that athlete tied to your brand," he said. "It's pretty impactful."

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