London Outdoes China in Brand Crackdown at Summer Olympics

Restrictions to Protect Sponsors Even Stricter Than Beijing Games

By Published on .

A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

As torchbearers carry the Olympic flame through Britain's small villages, towns and cities, supporters are lining the route to cheer them on their way. But well in advance of those iconic moments, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games has been swooping onto the torch route, cleaning up the streets to make sure that any unscripted displays of participation -- or branding -- are nipped in the bud.

Does it really matter if supporters, applauding 8,000 individuals who have mostly won the right to carry the torch because of their tireless work for the local community, see a makeshift café sign offering an "Olympic breakfast" or an unsanctioned flag?

The LOCOG thinks so.

This kind of total clampdown might have been expected under the Communist regime during the 2008 games in Beijing, but London? In 2012?

In fact, the London restrictions are harsher than they were in China four years ago.

McDonald's will have four restaurants at the Olympic Park in London for this year's games.
McDonald's will have four restaurants at the Olympic Park in London for this year's games.

It's not just the Olympic name that cannot be taken in vain. Sponsors -- including McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola, British Airways and Adidas -- who have together paid $1 billion for the right to be a part of the games, demand extreme levels of exclusivity, creating a kind of corporate straightjacket around the two-week-long event starting July 27.

LOCOG's demands are all clearly laid out on its website. To protect sponsors, a 35-day, one-kilometer Brand Exclusion Zone will be enforced around all Olympic venues, inside which no brands that compete with official sponsor brands can advertise. It's not just ads -- spectators trying to pay with the wrong credit card, will not be welcome.

For road events such as the marathon and some of the cycling, the exclusion zone extends to two meters on either side of the track.

The U.K. passed new legislation in 2006, giving the Olympics and their sponsors an extra level of protection beyond existing copyright and contract law. The biggest change is the clampdown on "association," so that only sponsors can use the words "games," "2012," "twentytwelve" or "two thousand and twelve." Unless you are prepared to face criminal charges, it's best to avoid using the words "medal," "gold," "silver" and "bronze."

Even social media -- which most brands have long since given up trying to police -- is not free from Olympic control. Twitter suspended down the account of satirical activist group Space Hijackers after LOCOG complained about the use of its logo (while also claiming it did not mind the content).

Athletes are also under strict social-media observation. They cannot upload pictures or footage, and/ or post reports about their own--or anyone else's--performance. And LOCOG's 70,000-strong volunteer corps has been instructed not to post anything about the games on social networks. They are banned from disclosing information on athletes, VIPs or their locations. Photographs of backstage areas are also out of bounds.

James Kirkham, managing partner of London creative agency Holler, said, "Unless you are made to hand your phone in at the gate, how are they going to police it? There will be hundreds of thousands of spectators, all of them with a computer in their pocket -- it's what makes these games so exciting. People will get a kick out of breaking the rules."

In its attempt to take control of social media, the International Olympic Committee has launched its own social-media platform, the "Olympic Athletes' Hub" to aggregate the official Twitter and Facebook accounts of more than 1,000 current and past competitors.

Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing and sponsorship agency brandRapport, said, "The perception is that it's heavy-handed, but the fact is that the Olympics relies on sponsors. And this is not a traditional sponsorship--there's not a lot of branding available. It's not like other events, where you have billboards around the ground and interview backdrops. So sponsors have to benefit in other ways."

Existing sponsorship deals count for nothing when the Olympics are in town. The O2 Arena, which bears the name of Spanish mobile network Telefonica's O2 network and is the world's most popular concert venue, has had to become the North Greenwich Arena for the duration of the Olympics, because of IOC rules. (O2 was given the lucrative contract to provide much of the telecoms systems around the games.)

Brewer Marston's, however, is not so fortunate. Marston's has the official beer concession at Lord's Cricket Ground, but will have its hand pumps removed while the archery takes place, along with the portraits of cricketer Matthew Hoggard, who is the brand's ambassador. Heineken has secured the official "pouring rights" to the games.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that spectators wearing clothing or carrying food and drink branded by non-sponsoring companies would not be welcome in exclusion zones. According to LOCOG, this is not the case. The LOCOG also holds that while footage of actual sporting events is under copyright protection, it is not prohibiting the posting of fan photos taken at events on social media and, is in fact, encouraging it. Further, Twitter did not technically shut down the Space Hijackers' account but rather suspended it.

The LOGOC has also stated that O2 Arena is becoming North Greenwich Arena due to IOC rules and not because of sponsorship disputes between Telefonica and BT. O2's contract to provide telecommunications for the games has nothing to do with naming rights, according to LOGOC.

An earlier version of this story stated that LOGOC has 700,000 volunteers. It has 70,000.

We regret the errors.

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