The first rule of the Olympics is: You do not talk about the Olympics. Not, that is, if you aren’t an official sponsor. As London’s games draw near, British businesses have been learning just how little leeway they have to use this summer’s events to promote their products, or even to mention them at all.
Among the many people to fall foul of the games’ sponsorship police currently monitoring Britain’s businesses are a butcher warned off using this Olympic ring symbol to advertise his sausages, volunteers planning to give out home-made but criminally off-brand cushions to athletes, a florists’ shop decorated with Olympic wreaths, and a café owner selling a baguette with an uncanny resemblance to the Olympic torch.
It’s not just small businesses that are being scared off. Just before its premier, Birmingham Royal Ballet was forced to stop using the phrase "Faster Higher Stronger" (Britain’s Olympic motto) as the name of a production celebrating links between dance and sport. The pettiness of this micromanaged brand protection is going down as well as you’d expect with the home crowd. On one side people are being told to give up their skepticism and embrace the games as their very own. On the other they are being ordered to keep their greasy mitts off what doesn’t belong to them.
This trend is repeated within the Olympic camp itself, where a two-tier system is in place. According to International Olympic Committee rules, firms working on (but not sponsoring) Olympic projects are banned from mentioning them for 12 years following the games, such benefits having been ring-fenced for sponsors alone. Facing 12 years of silence on website homepages, social media and in the press, some of the 75,000 British companies thus gagged have been protesting behind the scenes with some force their inability to capitalize on their Olympic work. With far more Olympic funds coming from taxpayers than sponsors, there is some resentment that the public is underwriting a massive advertising platform for big companies who then treat the games as their sole property.
Stricter still are rules within the 35-day Brand Exclusion Zone due to be thrown about half a mile around London’s Olympic Park, where any advertising or endorsement of non-sponsors is forbidden. Given that these sponsors are contributing a massive £1 billion to the games, it’s understandable they want to protect their investment. But with negative publicity for moves such as Visa’s demand that all non-Visa ATMs are removed from the Olympic zone, companies supporting the games are doing themselves few promotional favors by insisting on an over-zealous approach.
It’s the IOC, not the British government or games organizers that are behind these rules. The same laws have been in place for some years – in Beijing, non-sponsor kite marks on stadium seatbacks had to be painted over, for example. In fact, it seems that the British government might actually be listening to public complaints. The government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport is currently investigating if and how Olympic sponsorship laws could be relaxed, with the possibility of real changes being implemented arriving before the games begin. This would mean facing down resistance from the IOC, but could also give Cameron and company a major popularity boost by making clear that the government isn’t the committee’s patsy. They may not want to antagonize sponsors, but if Britain manages to get these rules softened up, they’ll be helping future hosts by taking one for the team.
Top image: A woman walks past the Olympic Cafe in Stratford, east London, which recently removed the "O" from its name, presumably under pressure from IOC officials. (Reuters/Paul Hackett)