Web brings new Olympic ambush threat

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But Games officials, marketers maintain a laissez-faire attitude

Olympic ambush marketing is a seemingly black-and-white issue in traditional media. But on the Internet, rules and attitudes concerning the practice remain gray.

Marketers that haven't signed on as official sponsors of the 1996 Summer Olympics but reference them in TV, radio or print advertising can count on swift prohibitive action from the International Olympic Committee and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

But on the Internet, where it's as easy as cut and paste to co-opt advertising logos, copyrighted materials and even the Olympic rings, it's a wide-open field for potential ambushers.


"In 1992, ambush marketing wasn't an issue as it pertains to the Internet. Since then, the Web has exploded," said Bill Ferguson, director of Atlanta Centennial Olympic Properties' sponsor protection division. "The issue has come up in discussion with sponsors, but it's one of those things where the technology has come around faster than the law."

Are Olympic sponsors vulnerable to ambushing on the Web? Should they be concerned? Few of the sponsors Advertising Age talked to thought there would be a problem. But with the start of the Games just a month away, they might be wise to give Web ambushing a second thought.

The problem lies in a debate not easily resolved: When is a Web site considered advertising, and when is it editorial? Olympic officials have given their blessing to sites offering news about the Games, even if that coverage comes from a marketer.

"As long as it's just editorial coverage and the marketer is not claiming a partnership with the Games, then it's OK," said Mr. Ferguson.


That's how Apple Computer got permission to set up an ad-supported Web site focusing on the Olympics. Apple secured press credentials, and because its site won't suggest it has an official relationship with the Games, IBM Corp., a $40 million global sponsor of the Games and creator of the official 1996 Summer Olympic Web site, has voiced no concerns.

Nike, meanwhile, launched a Web site last week called "@LANTA" (http://www.nike.com). The athletic shoe marketer, not an Olympic sponsor, claims its site is designed to offer information for the media, but it also manages to promote Nike athletes and products.

"The Web isn't as stringently controlled as other media. A Web site is by the nature of the beast more open to that parasitic marketing," said Kevin Thompson, director of event marketing at Olympic sponsor General Motors Corp.'s North American Operations.

Reebok International, meanwhile is blurring the ad-editorial line itself, offering a mix of Olympic-theme marketing and editorial.

"I don't think our site is either" advertising or editorial, said Brenda Goodell, Reebok's VP-new media and programming. "I see it as a resource for consumers and for people interested in sports and fitness, interested in the best and most-recent news about sports in general and Reebok product in particular."

During the Games, the site will profile Reebok-clad Olympians, post competition results and conduct at least five online chats per day with athletes. Consumers in Atlanta also will be able to download coupons for Reebok products, a version of an Internet promotion currently being executed in five Asian countries.


AT&T Corp. is taking a similar tack. Its site offers users online games based on Olympic sports, as well as a bulletin board that allows users with similar interests, like gymnastics, to hook up and chat about Olympic events, athletes and news.

During the Games, live video feeds will offer glimpses of the Global Olympic Village and Centennial Olympic Park.

"Marketers are always cognizant of the possibility of ambush, but are we fearful? Absolutely not," said John Nardone, director of media and research services at Westport, Conn.-based Modem Media, AT&T's interactive agency of record.

Anheuser-Busch, which is supplementing a retail promotion with an online promotion called "Net the Gold", says it isn't concerned about online ambushing either.

"People would see through it; at this stage in the game, it's pretty obvious who's involved in the Olympics and who isn't," an A-B spokesman said.

Maybe not. More than four dozen companies have attached their name to the 1996 Summer Games. By not holding the Internet to the same rules as other media, Olympics officials are opening the door to widespread ambushing. The interlopers may have already begun walking in.

Contributing: Kim Cleland, Mark Gleason, Jean Halliday, Brad Johnson and Todd Pruzan.

Copyright June 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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