In November 2009, Eagles tight end Brent Celek caught a touchdown pass and secretly put on a commercial.
Celek dropped the ball in the end zone, put one hand on his hip, the other on a raised leg, and struck a pose that was an imitation of the leaning pirate on a bottle of Captain Morgan rum.
Captain Morgan had been running a marketing campaign with regular joes striking the pose in everyday situations, and they were about to engage NFL players to get in on it, too. Captain Morgan would donate $10,000 to an NFL-related charity for every instance of an NFL player celebrating with the pose.
The NFL found out and promptly banned the pose and the campaign. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Yahoo! Sports: “A company can’t pay a player to somehow promote its product on the field. Every league has the same rule. … It’s come up before, companies trying to use our games and then players for ambush marketing purposes.”
Ambush marketing is a tactic that denotes unaffiliated (read: nonpaying) brands trying to associate themselves with an event. Instead of paying a hefty fee to the “The Official (anything) of the League,” and have the exclusive right to advertise, they’ll covertly employ advertising that attempts to link them to the event.
The Olympics have historically been a prime target for ambushers, particularly for Nike. For the 1996 Atlanta games, Nike passed on the $50 million fee to be the official sportswear sponsor, and it went to Reebok.
Nike then papered the city in billboards, handed out banners with its swoosh logo and built a huge exhibit near, but not in, the official border of the games. When TV audiences were polled about the official sponsors after the games, 22 percent said Nike and only 16 percent correctly chose Reebok.
For the 1984 LA games, Nike ran commercials featuring athletes performing to Randy Newman’s song, “I Love LA,” and similarly polled better as an Olympic sponsor than official sponsor Converse.
This year’s London games are prepared. The New York Times writes that through acts of Parliament, Britain has criminalized ambush marketing tactics. Lesser offenses can result in a fine of $30,000 or more. Adidas paid upwards of $60 million for its sponsorship, and the London organization knew it would invite more incursions from Nike if it didn’t enforce harsh penalties.
As part of this, there are restrictions around promotions using words like “games,” “two thousand and twelve,” “2012,” “medals” and even “gold.” Nike's response? Create a commercial that downplays the Olympics.
To enforce this, the games created the “Olympic Delivery Authority,” which will deploy 250 people to the Olympic sites. They will look for branding violations by nonsponsors, and watch for any publicity stunts or giveaways.
I witnessed an ambush recently when attending a golf tournament. At an off-site parking area, there was an open area where spectators funneled into a shuttle bus line. Two reps from 5-hour Energy were standing in front of the line barriers handing out samples.
Without having to spend a dime buying space or signage at the event, they got samples into the hands of every person who had to take the bus to the course. Nike and other brands will try that too, so keep any eye out for Adidas’ competitors when watching the games in the next few weeks.