If you’re not Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or any company that paid over $100 million for an official Olympic sponsorship, then you’re going to have a tough time talking about this year’s Olympics on social media.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced changes to Rule 40, a policy aimed to protect the rights of Olympic sponsors. Implemented by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), the IOC’s Rule 40 prohibits unofficial sponsors from using trademarked Olympic terms, phrases, and images in their advertising, including words and phrases such as “Olympic,” “Olympics,” “Rio,” “let the games begin,” “go for the gold,” and “Team USA.”
Rule 40 also prevents businesses from creating hashtags that include trademark phrasing, retweeting official Olympic posts, and featuring any Olympic athlete in its advertising. It even restricts unofficial sponsors from wishing athletes good luck, making it impossible for Puma to congratulate Usain Bolt for any medals he may win this year.
The blackout period started on July 27 and ends August 24. To waiver the IOC’s bans, U.S. athletes and non-sponsor brands were required to submit forms to the USOC by January 27 that included their advertising plans and social media campaigns. Any ads, if approved by the Olympic committee, had to be in-market by March 27.
Under Armour’s award-winning “Rule Yourself” campaign featuring Michael Phelps is a perfect example of a non-sponsor following the new IOC guidelines. According to Adweek, Under Armour submitted a waiver application to both the USOC and IOC for permission to feature its Olympic athletes in the brand’s marketing per the Rule 40 guidelines. “Rule Yourself” debuted before the March 27 deadline, and the brand’s social media initiatives during the games are expected to align with Rule holla40.
While Under Armour has successfully taken advantage of Rule 40’s changes, non-sponsor brands like Oiselle have not been as lucky. The USOC sent the athletic apparel company a letter demanding that they remove all content related to the 15 Olympic athletes they are sponsoring in Rio.
In response, Sally Bergensend, founder and CEO of Oiselle, called Rule 40 “a joke.” “You had to have submitted your campaign in January, before anybody’s qualified for anything. Then, you need to start running your campaign in March, so you don’t get any timing benefit with the Olympics,” she said. “For small businesses, running an ad campaign from March through August is really expensive.”
The Olympics have always kept a tight leash on their trademark rights. In 2010, American snowboarder Shaun White was blacked out of a Target ad in Times Square because the retailer wasn’t an Olympic partner.
For agencies, Rule 40 is a double-edged sword. It prevents ambush marketing, which significantly bars lesser-known companies from participating in the Olympics conversation at all. Fear of the USOC taking legal action could also detract agencies from risking participation.
However, Rule 40 could be a good thing: it might jumpstart a creative kick for agencies, challenging brands to cook up great concepts that dance around the IOC’s rules.
But the real question is: is this rule truly enforceable? In our digital age where content is pumped out in masses per minute, how could the IOC possibly police every infringement, from local bakeries to bigwig companies?
It appears Rule 40 is being used as a bullying tactic against the Olympic sponsor’s competitors: big companies versus big companies, but with traumatic consequences for smaller businesses trying to get a sliver of the marketing pie.
If anything, outlawing certain types of Olympic-themed engagement might hinder the Olympics itself. People under the age of 30 consume their media predominately through digital and social-media platforms. To limit activity in a space where the Olympics’ main demographic resides would not do the IOC any favors.
Nevertheless, the show must go on. Let #TheBigEvent begin!