The Olympics

Games of Chance: Rio Olympics Proceed Despite Zika Virus

Brands and Organizers Address but Don't Surrender to Mosquito-Borne Fears

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(Clockwise) Olympics ad created by Ambev; Savannah Guthrie, LeBron James; U.S. team Olympic uniforms created by Ralph Lauren.
(Clockwise) Olympics ad created by Ambev; Savannah Guthrie, LeBron James; U.S. team Olympic uniforms created by Ralph Lauren. Credit: Guthrie, olympic uniforms courtesy NBC; Lebron James: Natalie Behring/Bloomberg; zika ad: Ambev; map courtesy Google

Anheuser-Busch InBev is building Olympic buzz in the U.S. with "America"-branded Budweiser cans and a TV spot that includes glimpses of athletes. But some of the brewer's most important preparations are occurring in Brazil. And they have little to do with selling beer and everything to do with killing mosquitoes.

The tiny insects have emerged as a major annoyance to organizers and sponsors of the Rio games. They are dealing with nearly constant news coverage of how the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, could complicate the Olympics.

A-B InBev, whose Brazilian unit is called Ambev, is so concerned that the marketer has organized a Zika public awareness campaign. It includes a TV spot that shares advice such as getting rid of containers that can harbor mosquito-breeding water. "United, we can face anything," ordinary Brazilians say in the spot. "Mosquitoes won't defeat us. Revolutions start in the street. This one starts at home. We're going to change the game."

What's more, Ambev employees have distributed more than 350,000 posters and flyers, as well as identified and eliminated more than 3,000 potential breeding grounds of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can transmit the disease, according to a spokeswoman for the brewer. One tagline -- "Pior que água parada é você parado" -- calls for action. It translates to "Worse than standing water is you just standing there."

Back in the states, sponsors appear to be taking far less action in response to the Zika threat, which Olympic organizers downplayed at a press conference last week. Marketing plans are proceeding as normal and sponsors are moving forward with on-site activations and hospitality events, according to agency executives involved with planning.

"I think that everyone is watching it very closely, but for the most part it's business as usual," said Mary Scott, president of sports and brand experience at United Entertainment Group, a sports and entertainment agency. "I haven't heard of any mass exodus for hospitality or programming that is being pulled."

Ms. Scott added that the next few weeks are critical because if big-name athletes start pulling out, it could take a toll. Still, "for the most part, plans are baked, money has been spent, and so we are really at the 11th hour. So it's challenging to really pull back on anything at this point," she said.

Jessie Giordano, VP of global sports and entertainment consulting at GMR, which has 13 clients activating Olympic programs, said: "I don't think we see anyone making drastic changes to their programs." Rather, companies are "really educating and ensuring that their guests and employees are as comfortable from a personal perspective as possible."

So far, the highest-profile holdout is NBC's Savannah Guthrie. The pregnant news anchor announced last week she was skipping Rio because of Zika, which has been linked to birth defects. According to NBC, which is broadcasting the games, a "small handful" of employees have elected not to go to Rio. Several Olympic sponsors and agencies have also implemented policies allowing employees to skip the games if they are concerned, according to representatives.

Coca-Cola, a big Olympic sponsor, has not made any changes to its hospitality plans, a spokeswoman said last week. But she added, "Our associates' health and safety are always a top priority for us, and we understand the concerns some may have about traveling to regions where the Zika virus is present." A-B InBev has distributed Zika fact sheets to global employees as well as travel advice and precautions, a spokeswoman said. A spokesman for Kellogg Co. said the company has not changed its sponsorship activation plans, but "we are always flexible to individual needs of our employees."

American cyclist Tejay van Garderen, whose wife is pregnant, withdrew from Olympic consideration earlier this month, according to media reports. British long jumper Greg Rutherford is going, but he is freezing his sperm as a precaution, his partner, Susie Verrill, stated in Stanford Issue magazine last week. NBA stars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are also considering pulling out, the San Jose Mercury News reported last week, citing a source connected with NBA players. The newspaper reported that "players have been advised to not bring their families to Brazil and to sleep in malaria nets to avoid being affected," which raised "red flags."

At a news conference last week, officials for the Rio Olympics committee sought to calm Zika fears. "It is worth knowing that the incidence of the mosquito that transmits the virus is extremely low in August and September, which is winter in Brazil and the period in which the Rio 2016 Games will take place," Dr. João Grangeiro, Rio 2016's chief medical officer, said at a news conference, according to a report by

The South Korean Olympic team is not taking any chances. Members will wear training uniforms infused with insect repellent and long pants and blazers during the opening and closing ceremonies, according to media reports.

Ralph Lauren, which is designing the U.S. team's ceremony clothing, unveiled the closing ceremony gear in April, which includes white shorts. Opening ceremony uniforms have not yet been shown. Athletes will be allowed to wear pants should they choose, according to the USOC. On its website, the USOC links to Olympic advice from the World Health Organization. One tip advises that travelers should "whenever possible, during the day, protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellents and by wearing clothing -- preferably light-coloured -- that covers as much of the body as possible."

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