IBM farewell offers tribute to unknowns

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After 40 years, IBM Corp. bids adieu to its Olympic Games sponsorship in a series of powerful TV spots saluting little-known athletes as the heroes of their local communities and countries.

The campaign, created by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York -- set to debut Sept. 15 on NBC during the opening ceremonies -- is a broad evolution of IBM's "Look for me" ads that ran during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

IBM will spend more than $30 million on the effort, which includes TV, print and online ads set to run in Australia, Canada and the U.S. Airtime in Japan also is under consideration.

Three additional spots touting wireless e-business solutions are also scheduled to debut during the Games, then run through the end of the year.

Each of the five spots in the "Local hero" campaign is a portrait of an athlete's world, as told by family and friends back home. The athletes include a fencer from Harlem, an Irish kayaker, a Senegalese basketball player, a Mohawk Indian water polo player from Canada and an Australian field hockey player.

The spots reflect the pride community members feel toward their athletes. While most can't attend the Games in Sydney, they can follow their progress via IBM-run Web site Each spot ends with title cards reading, "10,000 local heroes, one place to find them all. powered by IBM."

"The star of the Games is the athletes," said Chris Wall, senior partner-executive creative director at Ogilvy. Mr. Wall described the creative as "epic, intimate and personal" and a "chance for IBM to facilitate basic human contact that makes the Games special."

The official Olympic Web site is expected to receive more than 6 billion hits from Sept. 15 through Oct. 1 and is considered a key example of what IBM can do to support e-businesses of all sizes.

"The Olympics has to operate like a business. . . . It becomes the size of a Fortune 500 company," said Marilyn Mersereau, VP-marketing communications, IBM Americas.

Commenting on the end of IBM's association with the Games, Ms. Mersereau said, "It's been quite taxing on our company in resources, both human and financial. . . . It's an incredible test of our abilities, and we've been proud of our association."

One new spot in the campaign features Akhi Spencer El, a 22-year-old African-American fencer from Harlem. He appears in fencing gear on a New York subway. Fencing in Harlem is something of an oddity. A line in the voice-over is from one of Akhi's friends: "I didn't even know brothers fenced." Other friends and family members weigh in with "Akhi is somebody to be proud of. . . . He's definitely a pioneer. This is definitely history being made."

Another spot is a glimpse into Eadaoin Ni Challarain's life in the small fishing village of Spideal in western Ireland. Friends and neighbors talk about Ms. Challarain, the only woman kayaker going to the Games: "Oh, everybody knows about Eadaoin"; "She's not only doing it for the medal. She's doing it for Ireland, doing it for every one of us." A group of fishermen smile as she glides by on the sea, "There's Eadaoin, practicing her strokes."

Ogilvy selected the five athletes after an extensive search that began in late spring. The agency pared a list of more than 100 athletes down to five. Ogilvy's goal was to assemble a group of unknowns representing obscure sports, athletes who don't have multimillion-dollar product endorsement deals or high-wattage TV opportunities.

IBM's brand push for wireless e-commerce is cast in three new TV spots and comes ahead of rivals such as Hewlett-Packard Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. In the humorous "Vending machine," an Italian gentleman wants to buy a soda from a machine, but can't find any spare change. He eyes a fountain where coins lie at the bottom. As he ponders plucking some change from the fountain, a nun in habit casts a disparaging look at him. A young woman approaches the soda machine with a cell phone. Voice-over says, "Wouldn't it be great if you could use your cell phone to buy anything, anywhere. IBM is making that happen."

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