China, Darfur Could Tarnish Sponsors' Olympic Dreams

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Olympic marketers, you've been warned: You'll need a gold-medal game plan if you're going to negotiate Beijing without your good names getting sullied.

Since China was announced as the site for the games, activists have been lobbying marketers, governments and anyone who'll listen to reconsider. Why? Name an offense, and China's probably guilty: human-rights violations at home; human-rights violations abroad; large-scale destruction of the environment; and its support of a Sudanese government best known for the tragedy in Darfur.

Perhaps marketers were just hoping none of those issues would gain critical mass. But Steven Spielberg's break with the Olympics provided a spotlight -- and an opportunity. With perfect timing and a media pitch that should be a case study for PR practitioners, groups such as Dreams for Darfur pounced.

If Olympic sponsors weren't exactly caught off guard, the responses -- which ranged from "Of course it's awful" to "We don't get involved in politics" -- seemed a bit flat-footed. None of the marketers indicated they'd change their sponsorship plans around the games.

We're not suggesting any of them drop out. But just as we've urged marketers to get involved with cause marketing, we've warned them to steer clear of greenwashing and making empty claims.

These marketers chose to spend hundreds of millions of marketing dollars in a way that has exposed them to the risk of damaged reputations and consumer backlash. Protecting the investment this time around will mean more than good sponsorship activation; it'll mean showing a willingness to confront the issues raised and being responsible corporate citizens as far as helping to highlight and address them.

Some suggestions: 1) Realize these issues can't be ducked. 2)Put a team of researchers on the issues and get to know them. 3) Make sure company managers can speak knowledgeably on the issue and that the company isn't seen as having stumbled into this without forethought. 4) Pick an issue on which to take substantive action and show how the company is getting involved, so that it's engaging in these debates, not just trying to take advantage of a big platform to sell stuff. 5) Make that issue part of its post-Olympics efforts in China.

It's either that or be tarnished as an enabler of genocide. That's an easy choice to make.
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