Rise of the pseudo-sponsors: A history of ambush marketing

Following the fallout surrounding Bavaria Beer's attempts to spring an ambush marketing campaign on this years 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, SportsPro looks back at the relatively short history of the underhand practice.

Following the fallout surrounding Bavaria Beer's attempts to spring an ambush marketing campaign on this years 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, SportsPro looks back at the relatively short history of the underhand practice.

Ambush marketing has polarised opinion over the 25 years of its existence. Derided by some as a parasitic practice that devalues both the brand of a sports property and the official sponsorship associations it has in place, it is lauded by others as creative opportunism that fuels interest in the sports property it is piggy-backing. What is without question, however, is that the practice has created some of sport’s most commercially memorable moments. 

The 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany will live long in the memory of many soccer fans. An unmitigated success, the tournament drew praise from all quarters for the German hosts, the competing teams and the global coverage. Yet while Italy will always be remembered as the champions of the tournament, it was the Dutch team that provided perhaps the most memorable off-field moment of that year’s World Cup.

As the Netherlands prepared for their second game of the tournament, against the Ivory Coast, tens of thousands of Dutch supporters were making their way from their neighbouring country to Stuttgart where the game was to take place during the late afternoon of Friday 16th June at the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion.

Among the revelling Dutch visitors were a group of marketers from the (confusingly named) Dutch brewery Bavaria Beer. Armed with around 120,000 pairs of orange lederhosen emblazoned with the Bavaria brand, the marketers prepared to ambush one of Fifa’s biggest sponsors for the tournament, Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser brand.

The Dutch supporters, renowned for their crowd mentality, donned the amusing promotional trousers in their thousands. Fifa officials, having been alerted to the situation, issued orders for security people on the ground to strip the Dutch supporters of the offending articles. This they did, leaving hundreds of Dutch fans to watch the game in nothing but their underwear. The world’s media, obviously, ran riot with the story, even suggesting Fifa’s heavy-handed approach to protecting its official sponsor infringed on human rights.

The next day, in the aftermath of the Netherlands’ 2-1 victory over their African adversaries, Fifa’s director of communications, Markus Siegler, explained to the world’s press that the governing body was alert to the kind of 'ambush' marketing Bavaria had attempted. “Of course, Fifa has no right to tell an individual fan what to wear at a match,” Siegler said. “But if thousands of people all turn up wearing the same thing to market a product and to be seen on TV screens then of course we would stop it. I don't know exactly what happened in Stuttgart, but it seems like an organised attempt to conduct a mass ambush publicity campaign was taking place.”

Peter Swinkels, the man behind Bavaria’s campaign, lodged an official complaint with Fifa, claiming it was “absolutely ridiculous” and “far too extreme” to order the fans to take off their orange branded lederhosen. “I understand that Fifa has sponsors,” Bavaria Beer’s marketing manager said, “but you cannot tell people to strip off their lederhosen and force them to watch a game in their underpants. That is going too far.”

No doubt with a glint in his marketing eye, Swinkels then went on to express his hope that the fans had remembered to wear orange underwear, adding a denial that the trousers were an ambush, describing them instead as a Dutch nod to German culture.

Despite Swinkel’s denials, the incident is now renowned as one of the most effective pieces of ambush marketing in sporting history – and that despite the ploy’s apparent failure. Professor Simon Chadwick, who heads up the Centre for the International Business of Sport at Coventry University and is something of an ambush marketing expert, explains: “The world’s press went barmy over this because a large number of Dutch fans watched the game in their underwear in the stadium because they had nothing else to wear. Clearly the ambush failed because they didn’t get into the stadium. But in another sense it worked perfectly because suddenly everyone across the world was talking about it. I’d never heard of the Bavaria Beer company and now I have, so even though it failed the fact it was so brazen resulted in many people across the world getting to hear about the brand.”

Ambush marketing as a concept first came to light at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Those Games, which generated a surplus of some US$250 million, were deemed an overwhelming success. They were the first to be funded entirely privately. In order for this to happen, the organisers of the Games and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) themselves had implemented a restructuring of their sponsorship platform in the early 1980s. Prior to the 1984 Games, any number of sponsors had been allowed to tie themselves to the Olympics on an ‘official’ basis. This policy came to a head at the 1976 Montreal Olympics when there were 628 ‘official’ sponsors. As a paper by Chadwick’s department at Coventry University (‘Ambush marketing in sport: An assessment of implications and management strategies’) testifies, although this policy provided finance for the Games, it “also meant the dilution of the Olympic brand, and smaller impact for, and awareness of, official sponsors.”

The plan in place for the 1984 Games saw product categorisation and sponsor exclusivity implemented for the first time. Although the concept was designed to, and indeed succeeded in, raising revenue for the Olympics by providing greater value for the sponsors, it also opened the door to ambush marketers seeking to capitalise on the event, as they were no longer able to do so legitimately.

Of course, it is now often difficult to differentiate between ambush marketing and guerrilla or parasitic marketing, or even simply genuinely creative marketing. Chadwick’s department at Coventry has come up with the following definition: ‘Ambush marketing is a form of strategic marketing which is designed to capitalise upon the awareness, attention, goodwill, and other benefits, generated by having an association with an event or property, without an official or direct connection to that event or property.’

Historically, most ambush marketing has taken place around significant sporting events, utilising a wide variety of media including television commercials, on-location promotions, and outdoor media all designed to link a brand to an event in the absence of an official connection, or to confuse the message of a rival brand with official sponsorship status. As such, the widely accepted term of ‘ambush marketing’ might be a little misleading. Perhaps ‘pseudo-sponsorship’ would fit better.

 The most recent high-profile case of ambush marketing came during last summer’s Olympics in Beijing. Although it wasn’t what the Games have subsequently come to be remembered for. Indeed, it is a popular misconception that the Beijing Games, officially sponsored by Adidas, had been ambushed quite spectacularly by Chinese sportswear brand Li Ning. The eponymous Ning, a former gymnast, was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony to the 2008 Games. The decision effectively gave his company a free ten-minute advert across China and the world, as the suspended Li Ning encircled the top of the Bird’s Nest stadium before lighting the flame. The decision to grant Li Ning very valuable air time understandably angered Adidas. Indeed, it was not the first time that Li Ning had been perceived as cashing in on its American rivals’ hard work. Li Ning’s corporate logo already resembles the famous Nike ‘swoosh’, and the company slogan, ‘Anything is Possible’, is similar to the Adidas tagline ‘Impossible is Nothing’.

Li Ning was also shrewd enough to realise that his starring role would lead Chinese consumers to automatically believe he was wearing his own apparel – a myth that has since been perpetuated to Li Ning’s benefit. In fact he was legitimately bedecked in Adidas’ official Olympic clothing.

The real ambush at the Beijing Games took place between perennial rivals PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s official Olympic investment ran, and still runs, into the hundreds of millions. Gatorade, a Pepsi subsidiary, ran a widespread television spot featuring Chinese athletes counting down to 2008. The ad concluded with a group of children in a large Olympic-training style centre playing table tennis, counting down to 2012 and 2016.

Indeed, ambush marketing campaigns have tended to be fought between two rival giants in any given industry. Often the rivalries are deep-rooted and the marketing wars long-lasting. One such sustained campaign was the war waged by American Express throughout the late 1980s and 1990s to combat Visa’s status as exclusive Olympic marketing partner.

According to Michael Payne, who fought a sustained reactive and proactive war against the ambushers in his role as marketing director at the International Olympic Committee from 1988 to 2002, “Amex never recovered from losing the Olympic rights to Visa after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. American Express may do nicely in most places,” Payne says in his illuminating book ‘Olympic Turnaround’, “but not at the Olympics.”

Indeed, American Express’ ambushing activities in the late eighties in particular incurred the wrath of the IOC and ensured that the company fell foul of one of the unforgiving ‘name and shame’ campaigns that characterised anti-ambushing action in the period.

Amex began its boundary-pushing campaign in 1986, launching a promotional campaign in Asia ahead of the Seoul Olympics in 1988. In a blatant case of misrepresentation, the company began offering Olympic medallions from the ‘Olympic Heritage Committee’ in Switzerland. Of course, the company neglected to reveal that such an organisation in fact existed not in Switzerland, but in the minds of the Amex marketing men.

The IOC, Payne explains, came down hard and quick, advising American Express that, should they not withdraw their campaign immediately, full page ads would be taken out in each of the territories concerned informing the public of the bogus nature of Amex’ campaign and the company’s deceptive methods. Furthermore, the IOC then promised that Olympic athletes and sports ministers would be wheeled out across the very same territories to deride American Express, denouncing their activities as highly damaging to grass roots support of sport while at the same time cutting up American Express cards for a selection of the world’s media.

Within hours American Express had called the IOC to say the whole thing had just been a terrible misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it didn’t put a stop to the company’s attacks on Visa. Just months after having its ambushing wrists slapped by the IOC, American Express was back to its opportunistic best. As a warm-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the South Korean capital hosted the 1986 Asian Games. American Express took pictures from the opening ceremony of the 1986 event and doctored them to look like the Olympic opening ceremony for a poster campaign whose message was ‘Amex welcomes you to Seoul.’

Jerry Walsh, the American Express head of marketing who had lost the Olympic rights in 1984, was adamant that ambush marketing not only had a place in sport, but that corporations had a duty to their shareholders to engage in it. “There is a weak-minded view that competitors have a moral obligation to step back and allow an official sponsor to reap all the benefits from a special event,” Walsh said. “They have not only a right, but an obligation to shareholders to take advantage of such events. All this talk about unethical ambushing is so much intellectual rubbish and posturing by people who are sloppy marketers.”

Hostilities between Visa, the IOC and American Express rumbled on into 1992 and the Barcelona Olympics. As Payne describes, Amex was becoming increasingly infuriated by the IOC-backed Visa persisting with comparative advertising campaigns. In the US, Payne says, Visa’s tagline was ‘the Olympics don’t take American Express’, with images of ticket windows being slammed shut in the faces of American Express card holders. The US$20 million they had paid to the IOC for their official sponsorship ensured they received no complaints from the governing body about this campaign. This time, however, American Express responded with more style, pointing out in its own ad campaigns that ‘to visit Spain, you don’t need a visa.’

This is perhaps one of the finest examples of successful ambush marketing. With no recourse to the law, proof of a violation of intellectual property rights being very hard to pin down in this instance, Visa was forced to accept the campaign as legitimate, as, of course, American Express insisted it was. Visa was left to rely on the property owner, the IOC, to provide more protection of its rights in the future. In the case of Visa versus American Express, the IOC, led by Payne, stepped in to negotiate a truce between the warring credit card giants. American Express agreed to halt its ambushing efforts if Visa stepped down its comparative advertising campaigns. The truce, however, didn’t last for long. The marketing strength of an Olympic association, however illegitimate, was too strong a draw for the maverick Amex, and the ambush campaigns were back for the Lillehammer winter Olympics in 1994. ‘American Express – Norway 1994’, ran the ambiguous proclamations of the Amex ads. Consequently the IOC allowed Visa to restart, with a new rapacity, its comparative ads. By 1996, Payne proudly states, American Express had finally accepted it had lost the battle and has since refrained from any further ambush activity surrounding the Olympics.

The 1996 edition of the European Championships, Uefa’s premier international quadrennial soccer tournament, provided an example of ambush marketing that changed the face of sports sponsorship. English sportswear company Umbro had paid for the rights to be the official sportswear supplier of the championships, only to find that Nike had purchased all the poster space and advertising sites in and around Wembley Park underground station, the main travel hub for England’s national stadium, Wembley. Nike’s move completely negated the power of Umbro’s official partnership. The same thing happened for the World Cup in 1998 when Nike hijacked Adidas’ official association in much the same way. As a consequence Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, has spearheaded the use and enforcement of marketing exclusion zones surrounding stadia, forcing the official sponsorship agencies of the competition in question to buy all the advertising space within a 1.3 mile radius of the stadia. The IOC too was quick to adopt this counter-ambushing strategy. The ability to implement such exclusion zones is now a key element in the process to decide future Olympic host cities.

As ambush marketing evolves, so too do the counter-ambush mechanisms used by rights-holders. As Professor Chadwick explains, “The IOC, in negotiating television broadcast rights with media partners now restrict the use of the term ‘broadcast sponsor’ within their broadcast agreements, obliging broadcasters to police their own advertising partners. Uefa has taken broadcast sponsorship protection a step further, buying and controlling all advertising time during matches, and allotting time to sponsors. As a result, sponsors are not only protected from potential ambush campaigns, but are also forced to better leverage their investment.”

Indeed, Uefa’s vigorously proactive policy appears to be paying massive dividends. Interest in the heavily protected three-year, US$220 million sponsorship packages for the Champions League is now so high that Uefa operates a somewhat controversial tender policy; and according to many, the waiting list is huge.

Nike’s ambushing of Euro ’96 and World Cup ‘98 was not the first time the American giant had courted controversy through such ambush campaigns. Indeed, throughout the eighties and nineties, the company’s marketing men courted the image of Nike as the bad boy of sportswear. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics provided a huge platform for the sportswear company to show its marketing muscle, and it wasn’t about to let the fact that Reebok held the official Olympic sportswear sponsorship get in the way of that. Nike went on the attack immediately, constructing a Nike outlet store just outside the athletes’ village in Atlanta. The signage was very prominent and the site remained highly visible throughout the coverage of the Games, becoming a visitor attraction around the venue in the process.

Furthermore, Nike began to undercut Olympic ideals with clever modifications of Olympic slogans in a series of advertising campaigns. ‘We don’t sell dreams, we sell shoes,’ read one of the ads, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger, Badder,’ read another. An eight-page advertising spread in Sports Illustrated rammed home Nike’s message for the Games: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of Atlanta,’ it said, and ‘If you’re not here to win, you’re a tourist.’

Michael Payne, the IOC’s marketing director at the time, took the fight to the sportswear giant. “As soon as I arrived in Atlanta and saw the billboards I got on the phone to journalists. My message wasn’t malicious or anti-Nike. I simply pointed out that the feedback we were getting from athletes and spectators indicated that the campaign was backfiring. Athletes were very proud to be at the Olympics and likely to be uncomfortable when their shoe sponsor says they have failed unless they win a gold medal. In fact, by thumbing its nose at the IOC, Nike was crossing the very fine line between having an impact and biting the hand that creates tomorrow’s heroes.”

The press began to turn on Nike, deriding the company for trashing Olympic ideals. Payne organised an urgent meeting with Nike – who had also initiated a move to smuggle promotional signs into the stadium with spectators – in an Atlanta hotel room. With Payne was the United States Olympic Committee marketing chief John Krimsky. Representing Nike was chairman and founder Phil Knight’s special assistant and long-standing fixer Howard Slusher.

“The meeting did not get off to a good start,” recalls Payne. “Within seconds Slusher and Krimsky were exchanging vitriolic verbal blows. This rapidly degenerated until the two of them challenged each other to settle the matter outside the room, in the hotel corridor, man to man. Both were of equal stature, similar egos and of questionable fitness. The impending boxing match had definite entertainment value, if doubtful sporting discipline, but was probably not going to resolve the issue.” Indeed it was not.

It fell to Payne to threaten Nike with the hardest IOC counter-ambushing action the world had ever seen. A plan was put in place to round up a series of silver medallists from the Games for a worldwide press conference to let them express their views on Nike. Secret discussions were held with Brad Hunt, the agent of Nike’s star athlete of the Games, 400 and 200 metres runner Michael Johnson, to see whether Johnson would be willing to stand up and speak out against Nike. Hunt and Johnson, perhaps surprisingly, were open to the idea. The final feather in the IOC’s threat-making cap was the decision to ban completely any form of Nike branding from all sports equipment at the Games and to withdraw all accreditation for any Nike personnel, making it impossible for them to look after their athletes.

Unsurprisingly, Nike eventually desisted, reining in the aggressive stunts of its PR team and toning down its remaining advertising. As Payne explains, his hardball tactics worked even better than he first thought. “Nike soon understood that there was far more to be gained by working with the IOC and the Olympics than against us. Later when Reebok reneged on its contractual partnership with the Sydney organisers a few months before the 2000 Games, Nike showed it was an Olympic convert.”

Nevertheless, Nike’s aggressive and unofficial marketing campaigns during the Atlanta Olympics had stung the IOC and moved them to launch an ambush campaign of their own, the first ever global brand marketing campaign it had undertaken. It was called ‘Celebrate Humanity’ and one of the ads featured bantam weight Bulgarian weightlifter Yoto Yotov hoisting a gigantic barbell over his head at the Barcelona Games. As Payne describes, “upon holding the weight aloft for the required interval he drops it, starts jumping up and down, falling eventually to his knees in triumph. The voice-over then takes a sly shot at Nike’s early ad, stating that ‘Someone once said: “If you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold.” Obviously they never won the silver.’”