In the world of sports, fans and athletes willingly or unknowingly accept the fact that advertising and major marketing campaigns are part of the game. The Olympic Games, albeit a unique sporting spectacle with unmatched reach and interest, is no different.
But this year’s competition has left many Olympians feeling muzzled by the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 40, which prohibits athletes from appearing in advertising or mentioning sponsors on social media outlets during a 29-day period that includes the official 17 days of the Olympics.
The major sticking point for most amateur athletes is that this rule and other IOC guidelines extend to social media, meaning they can’t tweet, post or blog for any marketing or advertising purpose.
“Almost none of them make money and now they can’t even promote their sponsors,” said Eric Johnson, founder and president of Ignited, a Los Angeles-based agency. “I can completely understand why they have a beef. If someone paid an athlete’s bills for the last five years, can’t they just tweet about it?”
On the other hand, the IOC is well within its rights to protect its assets and increase the value it provides to official sponsors, he said. “They cannot sell enough tickets at a high enough price and accomplish something of this scale without sponsorship… "The problem is that the Olympics are kind of operating in this neverland somewhere between being professional and not. They’re trying to play this middle ground that's somewhere between amateur and professional and I think that’s a very difficult place to argue from.”
Most brands and marketers haven’t found that middle ground yet, and indeed many were surprised by the IOC’s rules governing social media engagement in particular. “We're deeper into this world than a lot of shops and I have to admit this snuck up on us,” said Chris Raih, co-founder and managing director of Zambezi, a creative agency specializing in sports and entertainment. “I think we were even in the run up to the opening ceremonies…working to interpret and comprehend the limits and regulations.”
The IOC’s guidelines on social media, blogging and Internet, “encourage all social media and blogging activity at the Olympic Games provided that it is not for commercial and/or advertising purposes and that it does not create or imply an unauthorized association of a third party with the IOC, the Olympic Games or the Olympic Movement.”
Whether or not they were caught off guard, many athletes began to openly debate the IOC’s rules, sharing how these rules personally limit their ability to supplement income they would otherwise earn in a full-time career. Their conversation was propelled by a flood of social media posts using the #wedemandchange hashtag.
“This means that during the time period when we have the biggest platform to be heard we can not even thank those who have helped us the last four years by providing resources for us to reach our goals,” Lauryn Williams, a U.S. track and field sprinter, wrote on her blog. The performances you see require time and dedication that seldom permits an Olympic hopeful to work the average 8 hours a days and train in a way that would allow an elite performance.“
Raih empathized with the athletes and hoped the IOC will be more open in the future. However, for every athlete that might simply want to thank a sponsor for supporting his efforts, there are just as many who are contractually obligated to reach certain thresholds that enable sponsors to get a return on their investment.
"The sports fan in me would love to believe it’s all altruistic, but unfortunately I know how these deals are put together,” he said. The IOC is a “sprawling entity,” which makes it difficult to enforce these rules. “It’s like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,” Raih added.
While he is hoping for more leniencies from the IOC to open more creative marketing opportunities around the Olympics, Raih said he expects “even more strident rules next time around,” possibly even levying fines as a deterrent.
Meanwhile, marketers could look at these restrictions as a challenge rather a complete obstacle, he said. “It’s tough to feel bad for the losers. The lost opportunities vary by platform. But if I’m rolling out loosely themed Olympics content that’s getting gobbled up online and going viral, well boo hooey.”
Back at Ignited, Johnson hopes the IOC will have a change of heart. “I happen to personally believe that social media creates a greater sense of connectedness. They’ve created an event that has amazing, universal, global appeal and the social element makes it better. It makes it more accessible,” he said. “At the end of the day, long after this Olympics, the athletes will probably get some more rights. It just doesn’t feel quite right.”